Paint a Picture: Our Words As Our Brushes

As writers, we are artists whose canvass is the mind of the reader; our brushes are the words we use to create the story. Some paint a broad picture while others paint a smaller, more narrow picture. I prefer to read stories with some (but not too much) well-placed descriptives (adjectives and other modifiers), as they lead me through a maze of landscapes, cityscapes, and textures I knew not of, with characters carved as from real life.

Has writing fiction nowadays changed the way we paint our broad brushes? The evolution of language has certainly modified our written expression to a great extent, especially in the last two centuries. What if someone wrote in the frenetic way Van Gogh painted?  What if someone wrote as Pablo Picasso painted during his Cubist period, or his Blue period, or during his early years when his work was more realistic? An interesting thought to ponder, comparing their art to ours.

One shining example of just-the-right-amount of descriptive words (in my opinion, anyway) is the book The Long Knives are Crying, by Joseph Marshall III. As a result of his writing savvy and storytelling prowess, he paints a broad but exceptionally detailed picture of life on the Plains in the late 18th century, during a time of war and strife between Lakota and the U.S. government. Throughout the whole book, I was carried along by his choice of descriptive words. I swear I can find my way across that part of the country based solely on his knack for painting a picture of the landscape down to the tiniest detail:

“High above the frozen river, the Lakota sentry hidden inside a tangle of deadfall gazed intently at the horse and rider below him on a wide plateau. His expression changed little as he noted that the buckskin horse was following the game trail along the north bank of the meandering ribbon of snow-covered ice, moving in a westerly direction.”

The following is a portion of a bad example of descriptive writing I found online; it’s too long and wordy for this blog, so I’ll share only a portion:

“Chocolate. Three different types and three different distinct flavors, each of which  has its own unique benefits. Because, you know, chocolate is sooooo healthy. It has no sugar in it whatsoever, and has tons of vitamins and minerals (she wrote sarcastically) Chocolate may not have health benefits, but its unique and rich flavor has been influencing human actions since the time of the Aztecs,  who used cocoa beans. Historians estimate that chocolate has been consumed for OVER 2000 years!!! That means that chocolate has been around since the fall of the Egyptian empire. When most people think chocolate, they think of a yummy delicious substance that can be eaten, but what about a substance that people can drink? Not hot chocolate, but actual normal chocolate that you can drink?” (source: https://sites.google.com/a/g.coppellisd.com/expository-writing–carrie-erin-katie-aparna-stephanie/descriptive/bad-examples)

I love to learn how to better include descriptive words in my own writing by reading other shining examples. With the explosion of self-publishing sites, many more writers are taking a turn at telling their stories. But are they of good quality? Do they dare to take us for that imaginative ride so many crave from good fiction? I dare say, with the Digital Age upon us, I am concerned that our ability to express ourselves with language will continue to devolve, as our dependence on computers that think for us grows. Bad grammar abounds and I find myself craving the classics, for the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and Robert Luis Stevenson. They were writers that painted with their words as beautifully as any Picasso or Van Gogh painting.

 

Evoke, Awaken, and Enlighten with Your Writin’

The inspiration for this blog came to me as I hungrily devoured the middle chapters of The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo by Kent Nerburn. This is the third in a trilogy of books he has written at the request of an American Indian elder named Dan (not his true name but Ken keeps it from us for good reason). It’s been some time since I’ve been so moved (emotionally and spiritually) by a story told by an exemplary storyteller. I realized that whether we write fiction or nonfiction, it’s important to captivate your readers and leave them wanting more.

In the first book of the trilogy, Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, Kent beautifully details his trips to the Northern Plains region to meet with the Indian elder. I’ve never been there but I can clearly picture the landscape, thanks to his exceptional descriptive writing style; it’s as if I were there with him every step of the way, emotionally and physically. He continued to mesmerize me in the second book, The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey Through a Land of Ghost and Shadows, where his adventures into Indian country continue, and so does his brilliant narrative.

This one particular paragraph from the first book spoke volumes to me:

Because of this, I saw something else in that roadside enclosure. I saw a piece of the earth – a huge and silent rock – enclosed in a pen like an animal. I saw the living belief of a people reduced to a placard and made into a roadside curiosity designed for the intellectual consumption of a well-meaning American public. In short, I saw one of the most poignant metaphors for the plight of the Indian people that I am likely to confront in my entire life; the spirit of the land, the spirit of the people, named, framed, and incarcerated inside a fence.

Isn’t that what it’s all about for us writers? To evoke images, awaken a sense of imagination, belonging, or participation in the story, and enlighten us in a way that transforms? It’s what I try to do but whether or not I succeed is purely the opinion of my readers. Yet I keep on writing with the hope that some of my work – be it fiction or not – will take the reader on a ride to a land or place or dream they’ve not before been. And want to go again.