All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Description: Accuracy versus Intimacy

The subject of today's post came to me during a recent writer's group, which is surprising because I was already feeling a little under the weather. However, one writer's piece really caught me, as did the discussion that followed. The particular part that hit me was the description of a lawn-sized garden, sprawling and vast, with all of its intricacies and sensory details in full bloom. The discussion that followed was about how much description is enough, how precise one has to be, and how can one do justice to what they are trying to describe - either a real place or some dreamed-up garden of the mind.

In dealing with such a subject, my thoughts immediately went to my father's art studio in the basement of the house where I grew up. It was a cluttered space, illuminated by one southern-facing window, and filled with a combination of art supplies and family antiques all keeping him company as he worked. The air had an ever-present haze of pipe smoke, thick enough to turn the sunlight into distinct shafts of light coming in through that dusty window as his pipe smoldered while he leaned over his drafting easel.

Now come the questions: How accurate was that description? Was it as complete as it should be? Do I need to offer more in the name of keeping the integrity of the scene? To be honest, there was plenty more in that room - it was an art studio, replete with odds and ends everywhere. Along with his drafting easel he usually had a painting easel there as well with a half-finished canvas, a palette of oil paints sitting to the side, and this little transistor television sitting in the corner to keep him company. Are those details necessary, along with the description I left? They're all accurate, but are they necessary?

Honestly, it's hard to say. Depending on what purpose this description serves, I might just want to stick with the environmental descriptors - cluttered, smoky air, sun pouring through one window - to give it that cramped, claustrophobic feeling. However, if I wanted the description to highlight the artist he was, I should focus on the easels, the paints, the antiques and his works in progress. Either one is accurate though both would be wildly incomplete. The point, however, is that a thorough description does not always serve us best when we are trying to capture a moment or a scene. The accuracy of what we describe is always important in keeping something by the books, but that doesn't mean we have to include it.

The other part from the writer's group that stuck with me is that the image I describe will always be interpreted differently by my readers. Each person will put a different spin on that studio. Some will place the easels in the sunlight, some in the shadows. The walls will be different, the floor tiles, the whole room is subject to the reader's interpretation and imagination, so in fact I can never do that studio justice. My only responsibility is to bring out the aspects that complement the scene or the story. I can't do more than that without actually detracting from the whole.

And for those who worry about not doing justice to a past memory, take comfort in one thing: Your memory of that place is subjective as well. Memory is very subjective, often twisted around by our own assumptions and washed over by time. I remember several paintings that came out of that studio, but I can't tell you exactly where things were when they were painted. I know the different antiques he kept there, but they could've been placed anywhere. Honestly, memory has its limits, and that's okay. That's when we let our feelings take over, and write about the parts stuck not in our minds but somewhere in our hearts.

So this is why I go to workshops - there is always a reminder about how our processes work and different ways we can hone our craft. Plus, a description of a garden triggered some nice memories from my childhood, so that's not too bad either.          

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