By Dr. John Yeoman
Teenagers know better than we do, how to write great stories. Sounds absurd? We’re experienced authors, right? We know the craft tricks. We’ve pounded the keypad all our lives…
Yet, it’s true. Because young people often have a freshness of experience that we can’t match. Simply, they don’t know enough as yet. And that’s their gift.
Of course, they might not be great shakes at grammar or punctuation. That’s dog work. It’s quickly learned. What they have, most of them, is a freshness of perception. And we can’t match it.
Perhaps we had it once. Then we lost it, around the time our teacher slapped us down for telling lies. Or we set our hearts on some literal-minded discipline like chemistry or bricklaying.
But maybe it’s still there, whimpering at us like a child locked in a closet. If we’re creative writers, we can hear it…
To see the world as it is, without labels, is the gift of genius. Maybe William Blake had it. For him, to describe a tree as an angel was not just a metaphor. He actually saw an angel.
Hemingway had a similar gift. He didn’t see angels, of course. He saw the bedrock of experience, stripped of its metaphors. He found the words to describe what he saw. Then he stripped off a thousand superfluous words for every word he used.
Can we find that freshness in our own writing?
Sometimes. There’s a trick to it. I teach creative writing at a UK university. As an exercise, I ask my first-year students to wander around the campus for 20 minutes. Stop at random, I say. Just stop for five minutes and look at what’s in front of you. (Be discreet, I tell them…)
Pretend you have never seen that thing before. Use all your five senses to perceive it. Then come back and write a few lines to describe what you perceived.
I tell them: “You can’t just write: ‘I saw a mop propped in a bucket.’” That’s journalism. Bring out the essence of that mop.
Some students ‘get’ it.
“The mop gazed at me like an old man with a grey beard and rheumy eyes.” “The garbage bin was an Aztec god. Cigarette butts lay around it, ritual offerings.” “Parked cars steamed in the forecourt. Beetles with bright carapaces. Roaches stained with rust. Everywhere, the tangled antennae of bicycles.”
Annie Proulx does this in The Shipping Forecast. Every line glows with epiphanies. Maybe she does it too much. The book screams: “Look at me. Don’t I write well?” David Lindsey gets it right in A Cold Mind. Among the routine squalor of a murder hunt, Lindsey hits us with a glittering insight. Again and again. We don’t just see what’s happening. We feel it, taste it, smell it.
Balance is everything.
A lot of authors never try for those effects. James Patterson is as prosaic as cold porridge yet his books top the bestseller lists. Some readers just want plot, fast-paced events, a consumable ‘good read’. Fine. But a novel that also hits us with fresh language appeals to a broader market.
The crime thrillers of the late Lawrence Sanders never stop selling. Sanders had the trick of fresh perception.
Can that trick be learned? For literal-minded writers, it’s tough. Many of my students don’t want to learn it. They yearn to be reporters. Playing with words is for columnists, they say. (Never mind that columnists get paid more.)
But if a writer is creative enough to embark on a novel, the trick can be acquired. It’s a sleight of meditation. Just look at an event, an object, a person. Pretend you’re a little child. You’ve never seen it before.
I remember once walking into an art show. On the wall, some joker had hung an empty frame. Within the frame was the wall itself, plain bare bricks. I stopped. I frowned. I looked.
Suddenly, those bricks became objects of numinous wonder. Their textures, colours, cracks glowed with meaning. Of course, I was sinking in all that ‘meaning’ myself. It’s the trick of modern art. Perhaps that’s what the joker had intended me to understand.
(Or was he really a joker? I seem to remember the exhibit had a hefty price tag.)
That’s the essence of the trick.
Put a mental frame around an object, howsoever mundane. The frame has a distancing effect. It forces on us a new perspective. At once, a fireplace becomes a giant’s mouth; the glowing coals are a magic grotto. It flickers with mystery, fairy lights and invitation…
Do you remember those days? Suddenly, we have regained the viewpoint of a child. If we could once do it before a smoky fireplace, we can do it again – in our stories.
How about you?
Have you tried framing objects or thinking in metaphor in order to get in touch with a fresh perspective on setting? What techniques do you employ when crafting rich sensory detail that will pull the reader into the scene?