There is a new series that I can’t recommend highly enough: Between the Lines, hosted by Kelly Corrigan. She interviewed 16 notable authors including Margaret Atwood, John Grisham, and Imbolo Mbue to find out what story means to them, why they are storytellers, and how they approach story creation. There were so many gems that I watched with a pen in one hand and hovered over Pause with the other. My biggest takeaway was the common trait these authors shared that helps them to write great description.
I first noticed it with Celeste Ng. Kelly Corrigan asked her, “Have you always been an observant person?” Celeste said that she has been, even when she was a little girl. “I’ve always been a collector of people and ideas and experiences.” She’s also an unapologetic eavesdropper, always listening in on other people’s conversations, especially if they lower their voices. That’s when it’s going to get good!
All 16 authors gave the same answer in one form or another. They pay attention. They notice the world around them. They wonder. They watch interactions. They listen.
In other words, they move through the world as writers. They’re not writers only when they sit in front of the computer. Everything is “research.” I think this is key.
Paying attention can be difficult. There is so much vying for our attention that we have to block most of it out just to get through the day. And so we kind of forget how.
After teaching hundreds of creative writing students over the years, I’ve learned that being observant is a skill that storytellers need to practice. It’s a muscle which, left unused, atrophies. It was time to take my own advice when I wrote this actual sentence: “She wore a short black dress with black patent pumps and carried a black purse.” Good grief.
Using myself as a test case, I created activities to help me take notice of my surroundings. That includes people, places, and things. Then I unleashed these activities on a creativity class I taught earlier this year. The idea is that if we practice paying attention, it will show up in our stories and lead to writing great description. Here is one activity called People Mapping. Let me know if you try it!
Go to public area where there is a lot of foot traffic. Your local park, coffee shop, shopping center, or cafe are good options. Find a comfortable seat and have your notebook ready.
Document people you see for about fifteen minutes (or more if you have the time).
Take detailed notes about appearance, clothing, movement, gestures, facial expressions, etc. Be as specific as possible. Odd or quirky can be fun, but common, everyday habits and appearance are valuable because they hint at the universal—something to which everyone can relate.
Don’t worry about writing in complete sentences or developing lovely metaphors, unless it comes to you in the moment. Just record what you are seeing.
Then think about any feelings you have about what you see. Joyful? Angry? Charmed? Jot those down as well.
Between the Lines is free through Creative Live. You need to create a login on Creative Live for access to the entire series.
- Now that GoT has ended, are you looking for something to watch? Try Versailles! (Available on Netflix in the US.) Caroline recommended it, and I zipped through all 10 episodes. It opens with Louis XIV as the newly minted king of France and his plans to build the grandest palace the world has known. The most fascinating part of the show is his complicated, love-hate relationship with his brother, Philippe. (Also, I’m always interested in deconstructing how a story can be so suspenseful when I know how it ends!)
- Starting September 20, I am teaching one of my most popular online writing courses, Back to Basics: Elements of Creative Writing through The Loft Literary Center. This is an eight-week class and we’ll be covering everything from dialogue to suspense to description. Registration is open.
- If eight weeks feels like a big commitment right now, stay tuned. I’m creating a new series of online classes focusing on one element of fiction/narrative nonfiction at a time. Each class will be four or five days. You’ll get the information you need while staying motivated and not feeling overwhelmed. The first class will be Writing About Place: Five Days to Setting That Sings. I’m planning to limit enrollment to make sure everyone gets guidance within a close-knit community, so if you (or someone you know) are interested, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be opening registration to newsletter subscribers first.