Details. Description. This week, prepping for my Teen Writing Class on Wednesday, I’ve been inhaling writing-craft books one after the other, trying to get a handle on this most slippery subject. Why slippery? Because just when you step onto what you think is the firm footing of “add sensory details to make the story more vivid,” the slickness of “but don’t overdo it; don’t let the description get in the way of the story” causes you to slide right into a pool of cold, deep panic.
Okay, so I’m exaggerating, but I’m beginning to see why I’m not a critically-acclaimed literary writer. I have trouble concentrating on the nuances of the craft. I’m in awe of Monica Wood, a Maine author, who happened to write a book, DESCRIPTION, as part of the Elements of Fiction Writing Series put out by WRITER’S DIGEST magazine. I’m tempted to just tell my students to purchase a copy of this book and study it. There is everything here they will need to know about using detail and description to create vivid stories, to move the story forward, to develop character and setting.
But I’ve made a commitment to teach this class. I can at least share what I know and give some encouragement. Gasping, I hold my breath and swim for shore, one stroke at a time. “You don’t have to grasp every single concept all at once,” I tell myself. “You don’t have to teach all the material in a 170-page book. Start simply. One stroke at a time.”
This is good advice for any craft. When you are learning to knit, you don’t try to create a multi-colored sweater with intricate cables the first day you pick up the needles. Instead, you learn to cast-on a row of stitches. You learn how to slip the loop in a knit stitch and then in a purl stitch. You make a scarf, row after row, serviceable and simple. You focus on not dropping or adding stitches. You bind off.
In my class this week, I will focus on adding sensory details. Sight, yes, but also touch and smell and sound and taste. I will caution against overuse, but will tell the students to err this week on the side of overabundance. I will talk about simile and metaphor. We will practice. We will talk about looking at their now vivid description with an eye to the “telling” details–which details resonate with the theme of their piece (Is the story about despair? Which details reinforce that theme?) or the development of the character (Is she confident? Which details “fit” a confident character? Or maybe a shy character will discover confidence. Is there a telling detail that hints at such an inner strength?)
What I realize most about this process of preparing to teach is how much I’ve relied on “instinct” in my own writing; this is the reason why “read alot” is one of the cornerstones of all writing instruction (the other being “write alot). When you read good writing, you pick up the techniques almost by osmosis, but I’m beginning to suspect that a more rigorous and systematic program of study would be beneficial to my own writing if I am going to continue to develop my craft.
The old truth bears out, I guess. If you want to learn how to do something, teach it.