Penman No. 76: A Lesson in Description

Penman for Monday, December 9, 2013


NOW AND then I walk my students in Creative Writing through a lesson in description, which—as I’ve often noted in this corner—is at best always more than a rendition of the physical setting and the people and things in it. In the hands of a skilled or a gifted writer, a plain object can acquire a strange and memorable luminosity. Sometimes all it takes is the uncommon but logical and precise choice of a word, such as when William Faulkner describes a campfire as being “shrewd,” struggling and managing to keep alive despite the wind. At other times good description requires the writer to step back and to set things in a larger context, balancing fine detail with the broader sweep of memory and understanding.

I don’t even need to draw on the likes of Faulkner or Greg Brillantes or Kerima Polotan to demonstrate what I mean. Take this passage from a story submitted to my fiction class a couple of semesters ago by a young student named Katrina del Rosario, part of a story titled “Paying Respects.” Rather quiet in class, she more than made up for her reticence with this outpouring of brilliant prose:

The first Dayaos had been very successful farmers, and the land burst with green and trees and stalks and vines heavy with bright fruit; now only one or two Dayaos farmed the land, with the most magnificent of trees cut down to build houses. The elders remembered entire lives lived underneath the shadows of trees and grown roofs of vine, childhoods spent working the fields. They did not remember it as work. They remembered instead the bits of sugarcane that could no longer fit into carts and the sap sticky on their chins as they tore off strips of the bark with their teeth; getting lost in entire walls of tall grass that needed to be cut down; the cool of the mud and manure against their knees in the middle of a field exposed to all the ghastly splendor of a high sun; as small children, play was pretending to chop wood for the hearth and desiring to be old enough to pound the rice, watching in awe as their mothers tossed the grains into the air like a high wave and catching it again, cooking kangkong in hot water in their small toy pots made of clay. Everything they needed could be found on trees, in the fields. They had been perfectly comfortable. They were never hungry. Home was where the land began, and ended; living was the certainty of land and its fruit.

What’s even more interesting about this example is how little use it makes of adjectives and adverbs—the crutches that beginning writers often employ to carry the burden of description (“he snarled angrily,” “the bright, sunny morning,” etc.). “Write with nouns and verbs!” I keep reminding my students.

There are many ways of describing the same scene, but one approach I offer student writers is the option of gauging one’s emotional and psychological distance from the subject, and rendering the scene accordingly.

Depending on your purpose, you can choose to describe a person, thing, or place in one of several alternative modes. Your purpose, of course, will depend in turn on the kind of fiction or scene you are working on. I made up the following examples (so you’ll forgive me if they sound cheesy) to illustrate these alternatives.

What I call the technical/objective mode is strictly that, a seemingly factual, no-frills rendition of the scene, as a police report might put it:

The apparition was reported by a male witness, 45 years old, a farmer and a native of the town of Libmanan, Camarines Sur where previous sightings were said to have occurred. The man, Angelo Camagay, described what he saw as a woman in her early thirties, about 5 ft. 4 in. tall, and with distinctly Caucasian features: light brown hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion. She was clothed in a full body-length white robe of soft material; Camagay could not remember seeing footgear of any kind. She appeared before him at about 5:45 am on the opposite bank of a stream where he had paused to draw water in his bamboo container, prior to working in the fields.

Somewhat warmer and more detailed is the neutral/realistic mode. It’s still a fairly straightforward description without much emotional coloring, but we see things more vividly:

Augusto dipped the thick, three-foot length of bamboo trunk into the water; it had been severed at the nodes, with a hole cut into the top and a wooden handle attached to one side. Now the cool, clear water gurgled into the hole as Augusto held the container down, feeling the stream swirl around his wrists and the bamboo struggle to keep afloat. Later, in the heat of noon, the same water would slake his thirst and wash the paddy mud off his hands. Augusto looked up; it might have been a bird bursting out of the trees that caught his eye; but it was a woman on the opposite bank, blinding in her pure white robe. She, too, was white of skin; her hair was a light brown, and she stood closely enough for him to see that her eyes were blue. He could not see her feet, which were lost in the lush grass. She seemed younger but somewhat taller than his wife. Augusto knew that in all of his forty-five years in Libmanan, he had never seen anyone like her; but some of his townmates had, and now he believed them.

And finally—though perhaps with the greatest degree of difficulty—one can go into the lyrical/romantic mode, which involves a certain degree of abstraction and sublimation, and certainly a more pronounced attitude, not to mention some linguistic dexterity:

Rough the palms that trapped the water, brown the arms that fought its surge. Come into my bamboo cup of cups and fill me in my driest need, my limpid blood of morning. Come. And Augusto looked up for an instant, thinking that a great white bird had exploded in the trees, flushed out by his presence. But no bird there, no stark familiar creature of his town’s well-traveled woods. Maria, Ave Maria, oh fair oh pure oh thou footless light disconsolate. Eye of sky, hair of corn, I come to you. And bathed in her sudden radiance, Augusto thirsted as he had never had, but as others had, and now he saw, and now he knew.

Whichever mode the writer employs, he or she should remember that the best description always does more than physically describe: it prepares and conditions us for what is about to follow, and, working with the narrative, provides a context against which we can understand characters and their situations better.


LAST WEEK’S piece on the forgotten master Constancio Bernardo—whose 100-year retrospective dazzled us when we attended its opening last Wednesday—prompted the following recollection from the Davao-based poet Ricky de Ungria, who also paints and draws occasionally:

“My first teacher in the arts was Ms. Katy Bengzon of DLSU. I took a summer class there in Taft when I was still in high school and copped a prize for a watercolor of mine. My second teacher was Constancio Bernardo. My father enrolled me in a summer class of his at the old CMLI gardens somewhere in Quezon City. He taught me how to do landscapes in watercolor. In fact in one of my old sketchpads he showed me how to do shadows of leaves on trees. Very calm, soft-spoken and gentle man, as I remember now. All this to tell you how much I appreciate your piece on him today because I knew so little of him.”

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