I just finished The Day of The Locust by Nathaniel West, which is an example of telling a story through great details (in this case, of faux-everything-Hollywood).
Next he came to a small pond with large celluloid swans floating on it. Across one end was a bridge with a sign that read, ‘To Kamp Komfit.’ He crossed the bridge and followed a little path that ended at a Greek temple dedicated to Eros. The god himself lay face downward in a pile of old newspapers and bottles.
–Chapter 18, page 126.
The book is full of descriptions like this: semi-cold language with stark images to carry the emotional weight. The protagonist (Tod Hackett) is so out of touch with his feelings. He’s got strong feelings but no clue what to do with them. He sort of reminds me of Pete Campbell from Mad Men in that regard. It’s descriptions like these that really get the job done in terms of portraying the amount of despair this dude actually has in his life.
Strong sense of setting is of particular importance to me in my own writing. Stories usually come to me first, not in terms of “who” (like we’re trained, usually, to start with), but more in terms of “where.” I get a place, and then I try and figure out who is in that place and what they want. I cannot separate people from their places. I am only sharing this in order to acknowledge the fact that not every writer works this way and I get that.
Even so, I think we writers can benefit from emphasizing place in our stories because in order to do that, we have to train ourselves to pay attention to our surroundings. Paying attention is an enormous part of being a writer, of course. Listening, we hear about often. Watching, not so much. Or maybe I’ve just not encountered too much from writers about the importance of being watchful. Maybe being watchful just sounds creepy? Whatev.
I have a grandmother who is a painter. She painted until she was near 90, or maybe she painted after she was 90, I can’t remember–she actually might have started up again. It’s been a long time since I’ve been home. She is pretty awesome for a lot of reasons but one of them is that when I used to drive her places, I’d be telling her about something and then she would interrupt me to point out cloud formations, or the amount of birds hanging out the telephone wire.
Now I’ll admit, I don’t pay attention as well as she does. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who suggested writers take drawing lessons. That is a great idea.
(Ooh! If you know me and would like to buy me a gift, I would love another copy of Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain… I left mine in Bangkok with a friend because it was too heavy to take back to Detroit. My birthday is coming up, you know. :D)
And I think it was Natalie Goldberg who offered the following meditation for connecting to our surroundings:
While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–pick a color, say red. Next, note all the objects you see in red.
So simple, right? But it definitely works wonders for helping me connect to a place. I did this a few times while I was working and living in Thailand and I recommend it to anyone traveling. It’s especially useful when you are tired of wherever you are, or homesick, or just don’t want to be in a place. It cultivates appreciation, however bland a way it seems.
This year, I came up with a point distribution game for my walks to school (I live 19 minutes away walking from the campus where I got my MFA). It goes like this:
While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–allot a certain amount of points to everything you notice. For instance, the coke can you you step over on the sidewalk might be worth two points but the Porky the Pig graffiti on the side of the gas station might be worth five.
This second game is particularly nice for getting you out of your head if you’re battling some louder-than-comfortable thoughts.
It’s my belief that cultivating this kind of awareness not only gears us up for better writing, but an overall better quality of life, too. If nothing else, it cultivates a nice amount of mischief.
(Yes I am aware I used the word “cultivate” three times in this post. Cultivate! See, that’s five…)