Brenda Ueland said once about her writing, “For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, lying, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting.” That changed after approaching writing in a “careless and reckless” way which brought Ueland to what she called writing with “microscopic truthfulness.” The discovery of the “living, true, touching, remarkable,” writing came after much dull stuff. For me, the “how” of the above statements was still missing until much soul-searching and re-writing (sometimes not only second drafts but hundredth drafts). What I found in what Anne Lamott calls the “down-draft” or the “shitty first draft” is that we leave ourselves markers and they’re cleverly disguised as descriptive writing.
What I mean is this: I might miss a scene that blocks the reader from entering it because it seemed like I used image and description, when in fact, I just told the reader without knowing it and the whole passage was actually summary. For example, the passage:
“I would sit with my best friend at poolside, reading a New Yorker, watching the afternoon reflecting against a wide Colorado sky.”
Maybe parts of it are recoup-able? The changed passage turned out to be a page and a half of the actual meeting of my friend, describing her, describing her apartment building, the pool, then the moment at which I put down my New Yorker, and sang a song to the radio. Then I describe a bee in the pool and open up the meaning behind the scene, that basically we don’t have any more than this physical world and can only guess at the afterlife.
I learned to comb through my manuscript to look for the breadcrumbs I’d left for myself. When I came across an “I’d” or “I used to” or “We’d” then I looked for the summary of a scene. Did the scene need to exist or could I cut it? If it needed to exist, then I’d write out the physicality of it.
Here are some notable “physicalities.”
From Peter Schneider’s Eduard’s Homecoming:
“Having climbed a flight of stairs flanked by green walls, he opened a steel door beyond which everything had been suddenly, freshly whitewashed, and he now recalled the feeling that had overwhelmed him on going to the window. The newly painted and carpeted room might have been dangling from a gigantic crane above a cityscape destined for demolition.”
That description not only captures the room the character views, but reflects his doom, which develops character and moves plot.
“Bailey spends the entire day willing the sun to set, but it defies him and keeps its usual pace across the sky, a pace that Bailey has never really thought about before but today finds excruciatingly slow. He almost wishes it were a school day so he would have something to help pass the hours. He wonders if he should take a nap, but he is far too excited about the sudden appearance of the circus to possibly sleep.”
This is an excellent example of “telling” and “showing.” We are told “he almost wishes,” but the “almost” reveals a little character, as does the description of the school day’s mechanism to “pass the hours.”
I know this is disparate, but Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree:
“Farmer Shiner’s was a queer lump of a house, standing at the corner of a lane that ran into the principal thoroughfare. The upper windows were much wider than they were high, and this feature, together with a broad bay-window where the door might have been expected, gave it by day the aspect of a human countenance turned askance, and wearing sly and wicked leer.”
Hardy doesn’t even get to the character or actual being of Farmer Shiner, but reveals his character through the long description of his house. We know all we need to know about Farmer Shiner and we haven’t even been introduced to him.
Look for the woulds, coulds and any summaries masquerading as description, and you’ll get to the “microscopic truthfulness” Ueland so well names.