Like Eating Unsweetened Baking Chocolate

Four different people in the last twenty-four hours have e-mailed me the link to a website with a photography of President Obama’s inauguration address. The photo was taken with a gigapan robot device, enabling viewers to zoom in, much like GoogleEarth or GoogleMaps displays. From a perspective covering hundreds of thousands of onlookers, you can zoom in to dimly see individual notes on band members’ sheets of music. You can also clearly see the expressions on the Bush and Cheney families’ faces.

As I looked at President Bush’s expression, my first thought was, He looks really unhappy. Then I thought, That’s a good start, and utterly trite — how can I describe him more accurately?

I thought about the advice I give students: “Really, very, too, and similar words are meaningless fluff. They add nothing. Tell your readers what you see that makes the person or object more than ordinarily (whatever term you are using). If you say the day was very cold, tell them what is unique or impressive about the coldness of that day.” My current class had lots of fun last week coming up with descriptions of the cold day we were currently experiencing, and once their imaginations were unlocked, they soared, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous. We all had a good laugh and creative jolt.

Turning my attention back to George Bush, I let my mind wander. Leaving out
very still left things vague. Happy is no more descriptive than cold. How else could I put it? Does he look angry? Not exactly? Disconcerted? Yes, but that’s not quite it either. Outraged? Homicidal? No ... Then the word “bitter” came to mind. That’s it! He looks bitter. But how bitter? He looks like he just took a bite of unsweetened baking chocolate. He looks like he just ate a whole block of unsweetened baking chocolate. That did it. It fit my perception.

On second thought, maybe he doesn’t look bitter. Maybe he looks like he’s fighting back tears (and who would blame him?), or like he's at his best friend's funeral. I’ll leave that for you to decide if you click over to take a look for yourself.

My focus here is on writing description, not analyzing George Bush’s state of mind. Aside from straying from my topic, such analysis would be pure speculation, because I don’t know his state of mind. All I can accurately relate is a description of what I see.

If you want to learn more about the fine points of writing descriptions and join in a discussion of the topic, please join me for half an hour at 7:30 est on Thursday, February 5 for a free preview of my four-week teleclass, Make Your Stories Sparkle. The teleclass is sponsored by the National Association of Memoir Writers and begins on February 13. You can sign up for the free preview and learn about the details of the workshop on the NAMW website. Do sign up even if you can’t dial in on Thursday. The call will be recorded and everyone who signs up will get a link to download it and listen later.

Write now: take a look at that gigapan picture and write your own descriptions of various people you see there. (The view area will have more height if you click the fullscreen link on the left edge below the snapshot bar.) Or describe something else of your choice, then be brave and post your description as a comment.


ybonesy said...

Great example to use to make your point. It's hard to forget his face that day, those moments. But as you say, the important thing is finding the words that describe what it is he's feeling.

Ritergal said...

Descriptions are multi-faceted jewels, especially when you view them under the crafting lens. I was striving here to find an objective description that would not betray my bias. Another time and place, I may focus on my bias. Anyway, glad you appreciated the example. Sometimes edgy examples are best for getting a point across.