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Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

New edition includes over 100 writing exercises for all genres.

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The Tribal Knot

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Try These at Home: 4 Writing Exercises


Your Multiple Selves
The Story Takes Its Place: Exercises in Setting
Your Treasure Map
Bringing Characters to Life Through Description


Your Multiple Selves
Excerpted from Write Your Heart Out

Sometimes in the midst of writing, I discover that I’m in a rut, speaking from the same old voice about the same old concerns. When this happens, I remind my writer self that there are other selves living inside me. Isn’t it time to let them have their say? In Creative Nonfiction, Philip Gerard suggests that one way to discover new material is to write down five or ten identities which describe you (father, son, Catholic, etc.) and then explore what each of these identities cares about, worries about, or thinks about. My list, which is longer than the one Gerard suggests, looks something like this: aunt, daughter, niece, wife, sister, friend, gardener, hospice volunteer, back-up gospel singer, military brat, teacher, hiker, weight lifter, cat lover, cook. Each of these identities has a slightly different take on things, and can teach me, the sometimes bored or boring writer, something new.

If you want to expand the scope of your writing, try making a list of all the identities that describe you. Include your past identities. For instance, I am no longer, strictly speaking, a granddaughter, since my grandparents are dead. And I am no longer a military wife, though at one time I was; I was also a proofreader, a second-grade teacher, a door-to-door Avon salesperson, a community theater actress, and a church organist. However, since these identities are still part of my experience, if only in memory, writing from the vantage point of these identities illuminates present-day experience, brings past events forward, and prompts me to explore subjects and passions which lie just beneath the surface.

Once you’ve listed the various identities that define you, write from the point of view of one or more of these identities. What does the father-in-you think about the upcoming presidential election? How does the sculptor-in-you want to vote? Maybe each will pull a different lever in the voting booth; maybe they’ll argue with each other. Try writing a conversation between two of your alternate selves. Coax your wild, pot-smoking teenager past to write a letter to your buttoned-down accountant present. Or write a poem to the old woman you will become.

Some of the identities which define us are those we’ve assumed only in dreams or imagination. It can be argued that our lives are as much a product of what we choose not to do as what we actually do. The lives we don’t live inform the lives we live, and sometimes even haunt them. So rather than always writing about your lived life, consider writing about your unlived lives. If your name were Betty Ann rather than Isabella, how would you move differently through your days? Who might you have married had you taken that bus to Colorado rather than flying to Phoenix? What didn’t you do today? Which woman didn’t you kiss, which child didn’t you put to bed, which job didn’t you go to? Robert Bly’s poem “Clothespins” begins:

I’d like to have spent my life making
Clothespins. Nothing would be harmed.

Can you imagine spending your life in some different pursuit? If so, write about it. Step out of your skin and see new possibilities.

The Story Takes Its Place: Exercises in Setting
Excerpted from Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

1.      Make a series of lists:
         *Places where you’ve been in the last 24 hours; be very specific
         *Places where you habitually find yourself, whether you like it or not
         *Places from your past which are connected to specific events
         *Places from your past which are connected with particular people
         *Places that are threatened with extinction--global, local, or only in personal memory        
         *Places where you feel uncomfortable, where you feel, literally, “out of place”
         *Places you’ve never traveled except in imagination

         Look over your lists. Circle the place which most interests you at this moment, then write a description of the place using one of the methods suggested in this chapter or one of the following:

         *Speak to the place as if it were a character, describing what you see when you look at it, and how you feel about what you see.
         * Organize your description around a catalog of objects found within that place. Describe each item in concrete detail.
         *Pretend you are looking at the place through a camera lens. Try different angles. Move in for closeups, pull back for the big view. Describe what you see from each vantage point.        

2. Select a place where a character in your story spends much of her time: an office, bedroom, swimming pool, golf course. Then choose three different time periods in your character’s story, identifying each period with a phrase that suggests the character’s psychic landscape at that moment--for example, the morning of her job interview, the night her father died, the day she received the results of the pregnancy test. Describe the setting in terms of how it appears to your character during each of these time periods. Remember, you’re describing the same setting, but you’re describing it three different ways, based on your character’s inner drama.

3. Move a character to at least three different locations within the same story, three different vantage points from which to view her world. With each move, describe what she sees. 
“From the window of her apartment Fran could see...”
“Looking across the breakfast table at her husband, Fran saw...” 
“Every night in her dreams Fran saw...”

4. We sometimes refer to a place as having “character,” meaning that it has been shaped by the hands of time, people, or events. Describe such a place (a beach house, auto salvage yard, abandoned schoolhouse, ancient forest, barn, burned-out church), revealing the elements that suggest its history. Pay close attention to physical details. What initials are carved in the wooden school desk? Are weeds crawling through the Edsel’s broken window? Choose details that evoke both the human touch and the touch of nature.

5. Describe the same neighborhood as viewed by three different people--for instance, a lifelong resident who’s so accustomed to the scene he barely notices it anymore, a teenager who can’t wait to escape the place, and a dewy-eyed honeymooner moving into her first home.

6. Using Amy Tan’s description of Waverly Street as a model, describe a neighborhood as seen by a resident walking its streets and reporting on what she sees, hears, smells, and touches. Intersperse your descriptive passages with bits of exposition (including dialogue, if you wish) that introduce minor characters, reveal past neighborhood events, and suggest the personality of the teller.

7. Take the characters from one of your stories and move them into a new setting, one which does not appear in your story. Send them into the past or catapult them into the future. Give them a new world in which to live and move. If they’ve been confined within an office building of steel and glass, send them to the country. If all they’ve known is the ocean, construct a desert in which they can roam. Describe the setting concretely, then position your characters in it. How does the new setting change the way they look, act, and think? Can you learn anything new about your characters by changing their environment?

8. Describe a natural setting--a woodland, beach, park, mountain--as it appears in each different season or at different times of one particular day.  Notice which details remain the same and which ones change. How does the language of your description change depending on the season you’re evoking, or the time of day?


Your Treasure Map
Excerpted from Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

Draw a map of a place in your memory (or a place that exists only in your imagination. Almost any place, if mined deeply enough, can yield up writing treasures. Several years ago during an unusually dry spell in my writing life, I drew a map of my grandparents’ farm the way I remembered it from childhood--in particular, my twelfth summer, which was a particularly memorable one. I drew the twin barns, the chicken coop and outhouse, the trail to the creek, the apple tree, the lopsided garage, and the small building off the garage my grandmother called her “loom room.” I drew a break-away version of the house itself, revealing each room, window, door, bed, table, and chair I could recall. Then, as if marking sites of buried treasure, I placed “x’s” at every location I associated with a particular person or event. The milking barn: my grandfather in rubber boots, whistling. The trail to the creek: my little brother, shivering and hysterical after having fallen through the ice. The double-seater outhouse: Great Aunt Bessie crouched beside me, telling ghost tales. I was astounded at the stories that rose from the map, begging to be told.

As you draw your map, mark entrances and exits, furniture and props, flora and fauna. Place “x’s” where certain characters might show up or where particular events might take place. Remember the mystery writers’ advice on setting? Look for a place where things can go wrong, and position your character there. The place might be physically threatening--an icy creek, a steep cliff, a deserted road. Or it might be a setting that invites psychological danger--the principal’s office, the monthly weigh-in at the diet center, your mother-in-law’s kitchen. Dangerous places suggest trouble. And trouble is one of the keys to compelling stories.

By the time I finished drawing my treasure map, I had the beginnings of several poems and a dozen essays. The map you draw may yield up similar riches, and the more you work with the material, the more possibilities you will discover, just waiting to be unearthed.


Bringing Characters to Life Through Description
Excerpted from Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

1. If one of your characters doesn’t yet have a full name, give him one, including a last name and a middle name or initial. Try out different names to see which one best fits his personality and actions, or give him a completely inappropriate name, one which goes against expectations. Then give him a nickname and invent the story behind it; describe him, physically or otherwise, in terms of his nickname. Finally, give the character the name he secretly wishes he has, the one he’s always dreamed of having, and describe in detail the fantasy he associates with the name.

2. Choose one physical feature of your character--hair, eyes, hands, etc.--and describe it metaphorically. (Remember Emily Dickinson’s eyes, the “color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses”? ) If you wish to take the metaphor further, describe the feature in terms of a setting you associate with your character.

3. Write a long description of a character, or locate one in a story or essay you’ve written. Break the description into three sections and place each section in a different part of the story. You might wish to start with the most obvious details and save the more intimate or evocative details for later, so that the character is revealed a little at a time.

4. Describe a photograph (or video) of your character that reveals something about him that your story does not yet reveal. If the photograph was taken during a time period not covered in the story, your description might serve as a flashback.

5. Write a description of your character as he might appear in the future. The description could be from the character’s own imagination (“Elaine saw herself years from today....”) or from another character’s viewpoint (see the passage from Ingenious Pain quoted in this chapter.)

6. Describe a character as a blind person might describe him; use every sense except sight.

7. Describe the same character in three different environments--say, the grocery store, a hockey game, and the locker room. Notice how the setting affects your character’s appearance, posture, mannerisms, speech, and thoughts. In which place does your character seem most relaxed, youthful, worried, or lighthearted?

8. Write down a particular trait, emotion, or attitude your character possesses. Then list at least three “actable actions” which will reveal that quality. For instance, if you wish to show Darla’s vanity, your list might include glancing at her reflection in storefronts, wearing turtlenecks and scarves to hide the wrinkles in her neck, undergoing liposuction on her thighs. Expand one of these actions into a full description that reveals Darla’s vanity rather than merely tells the reader about it.

9. If you want to learn more about your characters’ inner lives, write a description of how each would react given the same situation. Choose a situation that will reveal the characters’ values, attitudes, or other qualities of their inner landscape: being accosted by a panhandler, being given too much change by a cashier, being seduced by a beautiful stranger. Which of your characters would fail to report cash earnings to the I.R.S.? Which one would refuse to have an affair, even if their spouse couldn’t possibly find out?

10. Write a description of a person, place, object, or event in the language of one of your characters. Use his vocabulary, his grammar and syntax, the rhythms of his sentences. (For an example, study the passage quoted from Praying for Sheetrock.)