Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fireworks Inside and Out

We still had time left in class--time to go a bit deeper into a question I've been wondering about for a few years, and have made a central consideration this semester: why is description often thin or even skipped? Why can it amount to stage direction and not much more?

The answers ranged from fear of sentimentality to laziness to preoccupation with other aspects of getting the story down. There was a sense that description is both daunting and negligible--that it can be a track laid in later when the main line is in place. If needed.

True, there is no necessary order of operations when making a piece of writing.  True, a bare bones story can exist without it.

What if one wants to describe, though, but is shy of taking on the authority to name how a thing is? Or can't find a way to talk about, say, a flower that feels fresh or interesting? 

It was about 7:30 by then; to my left, the picture windows across the outside wall of the room had blackened. I only saw the darkness peripherally. It was time for it to be dark; what of it?

I opened a book we are using this semester in both my classes, Mark Doty's The Art of Description. (It is the latest volume in Graywolf Press's The Art Of series on writing.) What a beautifully written, extraordinarily clear and smart book this is. It would have saved me a lot of years of trying to figure out how writing works if I'd had read it when I was younger, though I'm not sure I'd have grasped it as completely as I do now. Desert Island writing books, limited to two only: Mystery and Manners by Flannery O' Connor and The Art of Description by Mark Doty. Done.

The book is subtitled World Into Word; to myself, I call it that; it names the enterprise and opens the toolbox.  Three words, balanced and tuneful.

In the first essay Mark writes about seeing a fireworks display. I begin this quote partway into the story:
"A few children had to be comforted, a few shocked pets hurried away, but everyone else loved it, craning their heads back and taking in the gold and green and fuchsia sparks exploding over us in the form of starbursts or fantastic down-raining flowers."

How's that? Nice. Fireworksy. But wait:

"Here I sigh. That last sentence just doesn't come anywhere close to evoking the actual visual or auditory experience. Not to mention the smell of burnt powder and drifting smoke picking up a little salt and seaweed tang, mingled with the annoying cigarette of the man next to me.Or my awareness that the colors overhead were complicated by the peripheral sense that the intense light of the launching rockets has lit up the water a peculiar army-surplus green, while a cheerful little blue and yellow inflatable skiff to our right rocked on the wavelets beneath all that celestial action.
But what struck me most was this: as the bits of fire came arcing down, they streaked across the night at the same time that I became aware of the spider-smoke behind them, strange contrails and patterns left where the flares had been; these were already shifted and lengthened by the wind--so that beneath the descending display of lights, a kind of ghostly display moved at a right angle to the first, strangely, like a visible history of fire."

Beautiful. And now we're seeing deeper into the event--we're seeing what Mark noticed. The fireworks have become his experience, and he has parsed it carefully and offered it to the reader. It is singular, particular, sensual, supernatural, historical--a way into the strangeness of the real. Can we guess the state of mind of the person who wrote these lines? Yes, we can come up with some possibilities. Can we begin to construct a story based on this description? We could--we could. Description isn't only an enhancement; it can be a point of origin.

The key to deepening the practice lies in the opening phrase of the last sentence-- what struck me most. 

Me. Most.  These fireworks occurred to this particular mind in this way, with this moment being the most resonant. The event has become filtered through a particular sensibility (a highly refined one, in this case.) Meaning has been made.

We were exhilarated, so much so that we spontaneously began to laugh. Then--the room filled with light! We shrieked! I had no idea what was going on...had we materialized fireworks ourselves? The people facing out said there'd been a display of lightning bolts for the past twenty minutes or so. I missed it. But there were witnesses.


  1. What a glorious distillation of a book I promise to go buy. Thanks, Alice

  2. I have Mr. Doty's book as well. Well, in fact, I have all of them. The Art of Description is very insightful and I, too, wish I'd had it years ago. His poetry, however, is rivaled by his non-fiction work. Heaven's Coast remains an indelible read.

    Another favorite is Charles Baxter's "Burning Down the House."

  3. tschabarum--I have the whole series as well--they've been a pleasure to go through. I like this one the best, and I agree, Heaven's Coast is extraordinary, both structurally and sentence-by-sentence.

  4. Alice,

    Great piece. I'm buying that book next. The fireworks description made me think of a song by the late great Vic Chesnutt with these lines:

    My earliest memory
    is of holding up a sparkler
    High up to the darkest sky
    Some Fourth of July spectacular
    I shook it with an urgency
    I'll never ever be able to repeat


  5. I love those lyrics, Sam. I remember holding a sparkler for the first time--the stings on the back of my hand. Thanks for the message.