My non-fiction writing sometimes suffers from a lack of what I’ll call texture. The words do their job and get my point across, but the surface I create can seem a bit matte – too serious, sometimes a little drab. I’m trying some techniques to lighten things up, and one of them is to get better at describing places and people and events so that my readers can feel like they’re there.
This is a tall order for me; I live more comfortably in the world of ideas and concepts than one of stories and scenes. Carolyn has a gift for description, and I have marveled at it from the first time I read her manuscript. I can appreciate it, but I haven’t until now focused on how to do it, that is, how to paint with words. One of the masters at this is Edward Abbey, and his memoir, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, is a celebration of color and life in a harsh and barren setting.
Abbey spent three seasons of his long outdoor life as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah in the 1950’s. Desert Solitaire is a memory of those seasons and those places, an elegy (his word) for what has been lost, and a version of a counter culture all his own. Abbey was a fierce protector of the wilderness and a man unafraid of solitude and wide open spaces. His writing is starkly beautiful – the way I imagine his wiry and wind-burned frame once was – much like the desert itself.
Here’s his description of a tree near his cabin:
My favorite juniper stands before me glittering shaggily in the sunrise, ragged roots clutching at the rock on which it feeds, rough dark boughs bedecked with a rash, with a shower of turquoise-colored berries.
Another, the first sunrise he experiences at Arches:
Suddenly it comes, the flaming globe, blazing on the pinnacles and minarets and balanced rocks, on the canyon walls and through the windows in the sandstone fins.
I am not sure I have ever looked at a tree or a sunrise the way Abbey does. He looks closely. He studies the thing and the space around it, like a painter would. He doesn’t name it, though. He doesn’t say tree or sun, he simply describes it, brings it to life with his palette and brush.
Throughout Desert Solitaire, in descriptions of hiking in canyons and canoeing rivers and wandering the vast plateaus, Abbey makes the landscape of a desert tactile and real. He does this because he stops and appreciates. He describes how it smells, what it sounds like, the touch of things, how it feels to be there. He is not desperate to tell us about something that happened. He is content to show us what is happening all around us by taking one step back from the scene:
It seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here…so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.
Abbey is working with extremes, and he is deft at bringing them together. Instead of being flat, his writing is sharp and colorful. There is a lesson here for me and any of us who strive to tell a story, no matter what our genre: stop and look carefully at the subject; get close to it, get a sense of its smell and feel and sound; then, back away. Look at what’s around the subject that would help enrich the picture. Write about all of it – the sand, the rock, the sky, the light – and paint the desert.
Leah and Carolyn
Writing Exercise: Rewrite a description you have used in your current work that you feel is “flat”. Focus on describing how things or places look, sound, feel, and/or smell. Now, add atmosphere to the scene by showing the reader what it feels like to be there.