I thought it might be interesting to put down some of the things I’ve learned from teaching writing. From writing too, of course, but I find that when I teach writing, I tend to make certain points over and over. Because these are the sorts of things that many writing students need to work on. So I thought they might be interesting to point out here as well, for those of you who are writers, or who simply want to improve your writing . . .
The first one I want to talk about has to do with observation. If you want to be a writer, you need to also be an observer . . . someone who is curious about the physical world around you. I don’t know about you, but I find it harder to write about the physical world than about mental states. It’s easy enough to describe what someone is thinking, but try to describe someone walking down stairs. I mean, in a way that makes it interesting.
(Ironically, writing students often think the way to keep a narrative interesting is to include action scenes. But action scenes can get very boring, very quickly. It’s often less interesting to watch a character act than to hear her think. Physical actions are usually interesting to the extent that they illuminate something else: the character herself, the world in which she is acting, etc.)
When describing the physical world, it’s very easy to fall into clichés. And the best way to avoid clichés is to observe closely, to see things as they are instead of as people say they are. To see what actually is.
So here is an exercise for any writers among you: go and observe. I do it sometimes sitting on the metro, where I can see so many faces, all different. I think about what makes them different, what distinguishes them from one another. I try to remind myself to observe, because it’s so easy not to see, isn’t it? To go through our days, particularly when we’re busy, and simply miss what is around us. The colors of leaves on the sidewalk. The different kinds of stone in the buildings. And the world is hard to describe anyway, because it’s so specific, each part of it different from every other part, and yet the words we have are “gray stone” and “autumn trees,” and it’s hard for writing to get at that specificity. But we have to try.
I was thinking about this recently as I read a description of a character in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. The description comes right at the beginning of the book, two paragraphs in:
“Dr. Archie was barely thirty. He was tall, with massive shoulders which he held stiffly, and a large, well-shaped head. He was a distinguished-looking man, for that part of the world, at least. There was something individual in the way in which his reddish-brown hair, parted cleanly at the side, brushed over his high forehead. His nose was straight and thick, and his eyes were intelligent. He wore a curly, reddish mustache and an imperial, cut trimly, which made him look a little like the picture of Napoleon III. His hands were large and well kept, but ruggedly formed, and the backs were shaded with crinkly red hair. He wore a blue suit of wooly, wide-waled serge; the traveling men had known at a glance that it was made by a Denver tailor. The doctor was always well-dressed.”
This, by the way, is what Napoleon III looked like:
But I can imagine Dr. Archie without that image. He’s stuck in a small town in Colorado, but I know he will be a strong character, simply from the way he’s described. It’s a long description — you probably would not find one as long in a modern novel, since novels now are expected to move at a faster pace. But Cather avoids any clichés. She includes generalizations (“always well-dressed”), but also backs them up with specifics (the Denver tailor). And notice the information she does not give us: we don’t know the color of his eyes. It’s standard in student writing to find a description that focuses primarily on hair and eye color. Here Cather gives us hair color, but not just on Dr. Archie’s head. We also learn about his mustache and the hair on the back of his hands. We do learn that his eyes were intelligent, which is actually what we most need to know about him.
Do you see what she’s doing? She’s describing what we would probably notice if we actually met Dr. Archie. These are the things about him that stand out, that make him different from other people. That are specific to him.
So when you’re observing, you really have to observe two things at once: what is in front of you, and yourself noticing. You have to see how you’re seeing. And not just what is static, but also gestures. Here Cather gets gesture in a bit with the stiff shoulders; it’s a static description, but we get a sense for how he holds them, for how Dr. Archie moves. When you’re observing, think about how people move, how they walk down stairs, or put their hand on the railing, or look back up when they reach the landing. How do they turn back their heads? What do their gestures look like?
It occurred to me, writing this post, that writing handbooks often tell you how to write, focusing on the craft of writing itself. But they don’t often tell you how to be a writer: how to prepare yourself to write. How to go through the world as a writer, finding and absorbing the material you will need. Because writing doesn’t come out of your head. Oh, if only it were so easy! No, writing comes out of other writing, and out of your lived experiences. If it comes only out of other writing, it’s merely imitative. If it comes only out of lived experiences, it’s often unformed, uninformed. Like a long diary entry, uninteresting to read. Good writing happens when you’ve absorbed a great many things, both from books and from life, and they’ve mixed pretty thoroughly in you, as though you were a cocktail shaker. And then you pour it out, into whatever form you’ve chosen or it’s chosen for itself (whether a poem, or short story, or novel).
So if you want to be a writer, give yourself homework: go out and observe.
This, by the way, is my copy of The Song of the Lark, from 1924.