One thing that’s pounded into you in writing class is the importance of good description.
I remember a class I took my third semester of college. It was an online creative writing class, so it was a little odd. I never met my teacher or classmates face to face; in fact, I don’t think I ever found out what my teacher even looked like. Her name was Dr. Smart.
Dr. Smart became more of an essence, a presence, than a person to me. She lived in my computer and wrote messages on my work with one overarching theme, which soon became the bane of my existence:
You need to write more vividly.
Dr. Smart didn’t just want to read my words. She wanted to touch, to taste, to see, to smell, to hear them. And to me it seemed like an awful lot to ask. “Use your imagination!” I often wanted to yell into the computer (where Dr. Smart lived, of course).
Vividly. Vivid. It was her favorite word. It soon became my least favorite.
That fateful online writing class was almost four years ago now. And now I get what Dr. Smart was trying to say. Now I think I’m better at writing vividly (although I still cringe at the word). I enjoy the challenge of arriving at a scene and figuring out ways to allow the reader to use her imagination, by giving her enough touching, tasting, seeing, smelling, hearing details she can pour her imagination into.
But a funny thing starts to happen when you get used to describing things: things start describing themselves for you.
In January I drove home for a few days to visit family. Oil City is about two hours away from Pittsburgh, and thankfully it didn’t snow on my way or it would’ve taken longer. It had stormed a few days before, and the fields and trees were still thick with six inches of snow, crisp like cream so cold it could be sliced and laid on top of the earth. The air was clear and sharp like a bundle of glass. As I drove, leaving the highways for back roads that took me higher into foothills and deeper into forests, the sun began to set, and the entire sky looked like an opal, all iridescent and smooth. The light got caught in the evergreen trees and made periwinkle shadows on the snow.
In short, it was gorgeous. Every new blink of my eyes was like bite of a feast.
How on earth can people hate winter? I thought, because people do. They choose to live in a place where they very well know it snows half the year, and they decide to hate it. Morons. (Sorry for the name calling.)
But to me, now, as I drove and probably wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the road, the slew of gorgeous little details seemed so glaringly obvious. How do you not see the patchwork of lichens on a tree, or the way the grasses in a field are all a slightly different shade of brown, or the magnificent opaline sky?
The answer, of course, is that I’m a pedant, and that I only notice these things because I was trained to. I only notice these vivid details because some essence of a professor in a computer told me to write more vividly! So I had to learn to see more vividly! so I can write down what I see.
And then, as I drove through the Allegheny foothills in the winter sunset, I realized that writing vividly isn’t so important as an end in itself. It’s important for exactly these kind of moments; the drives through the woods, the strolls on the beach, the walks in the city. We write vividly so people read vividly, so they see vividly, so they live vividly.
I’m starting to like the word now.