“She was a woman who, between courses, could be graceful with her elbows on the table.” — Henry James
I happened upon this Henry James line from his book, ‘The Ambassadors” and I’ve been letting it marinate as I pull together some thoughts about descriptive language. I think it’s a fine example of how you can be simultaneously descriptive and concise by stretching your writing muscles.
Reminds me of how we as parents always encourage our children to “use your words” when they are having trouble expressing a feeling or a need. It’s the same principle at work. Just as we ask them to reach down into their limited vocabulary to tell us if they are hungry or angry or sad, successful writers need to reach even deeper to create a sense of mood, tone and description without blathering on. It's mentally more challenging—and far more satisfying.
James’ line instantly conjures a woman of elegance and refinement. In my mind, she is slim, beautiful, engaging and quiet in her voice, yet very present through her simple actions. James is a master of creating such imagery. And one of the few writers who could casually—and successfully—throw the word epistolary into his character’s dialogue.
Learning to write descriptively comes from being a great observer of life. Here are a few good examples I pulled from the mish-mash of magazines piling up on my desk.
“Thus the garden evolved, devoting ample space for purple basil beside all the sweet, jalapeno and paprika peppers necessary to quench Linda’s penchant for roasting. The result is mouthwatering.” — Tovah Martin, writing about a garden in Country Living, August 2004
“Standing on warm sand under a cerulean sky, I attempt to lasso the wind. A few gentle shifts of a control bar and the practice kite sketches infinity in the air. It darts, dips and gains momentum—propelling my body into the surf and my heart into my throat.” — Sarah Brueggemann, writing about kiteboarding in Coastal Living, July/August 2004
“And so the quest for the Holy Infant begins: the tests, the doctors, the sex with all the spontaneity of a military drill.” — Judith Newman on becoming a first-time mother of twins at 40, Health, July/August 2004
“The wreck might have been just a minor bump in my travels through a land where inhabitants display a whoopsy-daisy attitude toward fatal accidents and killings.” — Alan Cullison, “Inside Al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 2004
“Obama has mastered the art of appearing to take reporters into his confidence by dispensing the sort of forthright political chatter that causes them to swoon.” — Ryan Lizza, associate editor of The New Republic, writing about Barack Obama in
The Atlantic Monthly, September 2004
"Real love is a permanently self-enlarging experience." M. Scott Peck in O Magazine, February 2004
And finally from the blogosphere:
“As I finished the story, I envisioned Sandy (Woodthorpe) reacting like some latter-day Civil War general, studying the intelligence from the field before repositioning her big guns, oratorical and otherwise, to blast away in the direction of this latest perceived injustice. May she keep firing away in support of scribes, building creative community and reminding everyone of the importance of good writing.” — John Ettorre, Working With Words, Aug. 10. 2004