“Rather than considering our subject firsthand
and describing what we observe, we label it.
Because we’ve already established for instance,
that slugs are disgusting, we go on to
describe them as ‘slimy’ creatures that leave ‘gooey’ trails.
Cliché upon cliché.”
– Rebecca McClanahan
When we write, we have to set aside preconceived ideas and observe our subjects with an all-accepting eye that neither sees good or bad, beauty or ugliness. Our words should describe what we observe.
For a writer to write descriptions that are “rough in texture” yet “smooth as the moon,” McClanahan emphasizes the need to “really look at your subject.” Good description comes after one uses both naked and inner eye, and the all-accepting eye. “Accept every part of the subject, removing those conventional labels – lovely, gross, sweet, inspiring, depressing – that you normally associate with the image,” writes McClanahan. Additionally, she cautions writers on jumping to conclusions. Instead, a writer must refuse to view a subject as he or she had been taught to view it: “Look long enough and hard enough, and you’re bound to find the dents and grooves and lumps and spikes.”
Here is a poem about a slug written by Sharon Olds, which shows what happens when one observes a subject with an all-accepting eye. The result is a piece of writing that is not only devoid of clichés, it brings to light aspects of the subject that are not normally seen, because of judgments we hold. The poet also allowed her eye of memory to weave its impressions, giving the poem a surprising twist.
The Connoisseur of Slugs
When I was a connoisseur of slugs
I would part the ivy leaves, and look for the
naked jelly of those cold bodies,
translucent strangers glistening along the
stones, slowly, their gelatinous bodies
at my mercy. Made mostly of water, they would shrivel
to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt,
but I was not interested in that. What I liked
was to draw aside the ivy, breathe the
odor of the wall, and stand there in silence
until the slug forgot I was there
and sent its antennae up out of its
head, the glimmering umber horns
rising like telescopes, until finally the
sensitive knobs would pop out of the ends,
delicate and intimate. Years later,
when I first saw a naked man,
I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet
mystery re-enacted, the slow
elegant being coming out of hiding and
gleaming in the dark air, eager and so
trusting you could weep.
– Sharon Olds
“If description is the flowering, it is also the root and stem of effective writing,” wrote Rebecca McClanahan in her book, Word Painting, A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. I’m reading this book because I meet my Waterloo every time I have to describe something in writing. I honestly feel this makes my writing flowerless. This is such a good book and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to write well. I’ll be using this blog to take notes as I read through this book, so this post is part of a series. I hope you’ll learn along with me.