Living Description

Currently listening to “Cherry Blossoms in Winter” by the Yoshida Brothers.

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There’s a Studio Ghibli movie that seems to have been forgotten somewhere in the mix of all the fantasy and sword-wielding that exists in the world of anime, and its name is From Up On Poppy Hill. The story, set in 1960s Japan, centers around the everyday life of a young girl and her crush as they strive to save their clubhouse from being knocked down and replaced with a modern building.

The young heroine is surrounded by a wide range of interesting characters since she lives in and works at a boarding house. One of the characters living at the boarding house is Sachiko (pictured above), an art student who spends a good half of her time in the movie dragging herself out of bed. Why do I bring this up? Well, in one scene that stuck out very clearly in my mind, Sachiko groggily sits up, looks around, and mutters, “What day is it?”

I decided she was my long lost twin after that.

Somehow I forgot yesterday that it was even a new day and I missed a post, so I’ll try to make up for it here.

As I’ve mentioned before, I started working on my MLS (Masters of Library Science) degree this semester, and for one of the assignments, I was required to go to a library I had never been to before and compile a list of observations on it, ranging from the layout of the library to the type of people who came there. The kicker? I had to go to a library I had never been to before. The assignment isn’t due till later this month, but considering my tendency toward forgetting what day it is, I figured it would be better to turn the assignment in early than to end up doing the opposite.

With that in mind, I took the day off from work yesterday and drove to a nearby town to do my observation at the public library there. I spent some time roaming around the place and taking into account the way the library looked and the way the people there interacted with each other. Then I sat down and addressed the first question, which was, “What does the library look like?  Does it have aesthetic appeal, why or why not?”

I glanced around again, then began to jot down notes:

  • White walls
  • Metal shelves
  • Industrial-type lighting
  • Basic carpet floors
  • Chairs & tables mostly light-stained wood

I was working on this list when something suddenly occurred to me. In answering this first question, I was doing the very thing that I do for all my books: describing my world.

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Back when I was in high school, my AP English teacher assigned us the task of writing a descriptive “essay,” which was literally a descriptive scene of whatever variety we chose. Of course, me being the long-winded fantasy writer that I am, I wrote a several-page-long scene from a story I had been working on, finishing it in the course of maybe a day, while all my classmates struggled to come up with a paragraph. Finally, one of my friends came up to me and asked, “How do you do this?”

“Find a picture,” I had told her. “Ask yourself, what is going on in this picture? If you were there, what would you be hearing? What would you be feeling? What would you be seeing? What would you be tasting? Write these things down and put them into a paragraph. Pretend you are there and you are describing everything going on around you to someone who isn’t.”

For her, this helped a lot, and she was able to finish the assignment with very little trouble. To me, this seemed basic, but I do realize now that description is a lot more complicated for most people than it is for me.

It really depends on the type of writing you do, but description still ranks as one of the most important aspects of writing out there. You can have a great plot idea, but unless you can engage your readers, your project will never be more than words on a page to them.

I think that in an age where everyone is so accustomed to seeing their story on a screen, description through words is becoming a lost art. Every word, every punctuation mark has the potential to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, but that image is dependent on how those words and punctuation marks are arranged by the writer.

I remember visiting a historical house several years back, (it may have been the Mark Twain house, but I’m not sure), and while there, the tour guide told us that the furniture and decorations had been arranged as they would have been during the lifetime of the owner. This had been made possible, the tour guide said, because the people who had visited the house had described, in detail, the appearance and arrangement of everything from the sofa to the ash tray in their letters to friends and family members back home.

Now that is the art of description.

So how does that apply to us today? I think any writer, no matter how experienced, can benefit from doing what I did for my assignment and what those visitors of the past did in their time, which is learn to describe the environment around them, particularly those of us who specialize in fantasy, since the richness of our created worlds comes from our ability to take what we have seen and mold it into something we haven’t.

If you’re a writer, I encourage you to take a couple hours and explore your hometown. Take a walk through the historical district. Visit a coffee shop. Go to the public library. Then pull out a pen and paper or your laptop (I prefer pen and paper since I feel like ideas flow better that way) and describe what you see there. That way, someday your explanation will go from, “White walls, metal shelves, and industrial-type lightning,” to:

“The quiet hum of whispered conversations filled the air of the library’s main room. Young children giggled softly over newly-discovered books as older patrons tapped away at computer keyboards, while bright, early-afternoon sunlight filtered in through the glass doors leading into the lobby, glowing against off-white walls and painted metal shelves. The natural light of the day was offset only by the long, industrial light fixtures that hung above the stacks loaded with books.”

Any place, no matter how mundane, can become a story in and of itself if you use the right words.

Have any other suggestions for how to improve description? I’m always interested in learning new ways to improve my writing, so please feel free to share. And in the meantime, happy reading!

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