Friday, June 4, 2010

Descriptions of the Unfamiliar

In my last post I talked about the difficulty I was having in describing an unfamiliar object which I had spent a great deal of time pondering. This created a unique dilemma in and of itself in that the object had become more and more familiar over time. Since this item plays a central role in my story, I wanted to make sure that I portrayed it correctly, but without including so much detail that it became a wash for my reader. Of course, that meant that it must be factually accurate as well, in case someone with more knowledge of the subject at hand decided to critique my factual basis.

The story is called, "The Viability of a Seed" -- so maybe you can see how I allowed myself to be caught up by something that only takes a few lines to cover. Was I right in letting myself freak out about what the seed looked like? I'm not sure I can answer that question directly. After all, without stumbling on the principle dilemma, I wouldn't have gotten to this point: a place where I can relish in the varying styles that you presented in response to my request for your own descriptions based on photo I included. Furthermore, the exercise with my daughter provided insight to us both. She learned a little about how her thoughts translate to other people, and I got to learn a bit more about being a good father and it actually helped me to see the seeds in a new light. Even more than that, it was nice to share my love for writing with my oldest child.

Before I reveal the description that I was able to come up with after the exercise with my daughter, I would like to share the descriptions that were added to the comments of the last post. Just to highlight here the different styles and approaches that different writers presented of the same objects. Some descriptions were short, some were slightly longer. Some referenced other items of pop culture, while others stayed true to the simple form of what they saw. Let's take a look!

Jim Murdoch illustrated:

"Three large seeds, like elongated Sugar Puffs, each with a claw-like nib on the end."

Clint the Cool Guy described them to be:

"like slivers of walnuts, or cocoa beans"

Lynn Mitchell painted the picture of:
"Three wrinkled three-fourth inch carmel-colored pods, each with pointy ends."

Before breaking it down further with,  "They look similar to broken pieces of pecan."

Lee jumped right into a metaphor with:
"Brown, wrinkled and seed-like, the three teeth of the Magi appeared in his palm."

Each of these descriptions has merit, and each was an accurate representation of how the writer saw the date seeds captured within the picture. Likewise, my daughter painted her picture of a single seed.
"It has a line on one side, which is bumpy. It's pointed on both ends but one is fatter than the other. The one side that doesn't have a line is flat."
This description made sense to her at the time. Although when I had her read it to her mother and have her guess what she had described, she learned that while it had made sense to her as she looked at it, it didn't translate as well to someone who had to guess what it was that she was describing. This also helped me to focus on the point that really mattered. I didn't have to paint the picture of the date seed perfectly in the mind of my reader to get the point across. Still, my description was somewhat on the lengthy side.
"The object he held in his hand was oblong, pointed on both ends, though one side was fatter than the other. It was a seed, nearly an inch in length, wooden in texture, and golden brown in color."

I suppose the point of this exercise is that we can all describe the same item differently and still succeed at our objectives as writers. We don't need to treat our reader like an idiot, but there can be some credence to portraying the facts of an important item as it relates to the storyline. It all comes down the the emphasis we put on that description.

In my draft of this story, a man looks at the seed in his hand before asking what kind of seed it is. He recognizes the basic element of what it is -- a seed -- but he instinctively asks for more information. I could very well skip the description altogether if I wished and the reader would be none the wiser. I suppose my reason for keeping it in the story is to show that while the man has wandered far from the ideals of his father, he still has some knowledge and even a bit of curiosity in the world he thought he had escaped.
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