On top of a Rock, On top of Manhattan

The morn, in russet mantle cladOn Saturday I took the A train almost to the end, all the way to 190th street in Manhattan. Many of you, probably those not from New York or not that familiar with its streets probably didn’t know Manhattan goes up that far. You know that Yankee Stadium is at 161st, so isn’t 190th street in the Bronx? No.

Not on the west side, anyway. There’s a beautiful park there called Fort Tryon that overlooks the Hudson River and its rocky and forested New Jersey palisades. Also situated there is the magnificent Cloisters, whose walls were supposedly brought stone by stone from various medieval places throughout Europe. But I wasn’t there for the art. I wanted to simply get away from the noise and sit in the quiet woods for a while.

I searched the park and found a secluded spot on top of a rock that overlooked a steep hill. There I sat and brooded for a while, doing nothing much. I began to think about a recent statement I read in an old, obscure book about writing. The author said (paraphrased), “There’s no need to rehash things already done. You don’t have to describe a table. Everyone knows what a table looks like. You don’t have to describe a cup. Everyone’s seen one of them a thousand times.”

And these statements sat there in my subconscious for a few days until I was there, sitting on the rock, on the tip of Manhattan, with the sun beating down upon me that I screamed (metaphorically) a vehement, NO, THIS IS ABSOLUTELY NOT SO! The author couldn’t have been more wrong.

And that’s when these thoughts came to me:

The sign of a good writer is his ability to turn the ordinary and commonplace into realms of wonder. Case in point – William Gibson can turn an ordinary leather jacket into a masterpiece of art (he has done the same with sunglasses, tattoos, even discarded cups of ramen noodles.) We may all have seen a tree before, but any writer that resorts to a stock description – a prepackaged idea – lacks real imagination.

This is the problem with modern fantasy cinema. For example, Star Wars Episodes I-III. Unable to really invent alien worlds and make them his own, Lucas failed to capture the audience’s imagination. Ice planets were just lumps of ice. Jungles were just green canopies. Desert planets were just orange suns setting over lackluster CGI. There was no real imagination in those films. (Compare this to Empire’s Degobah and the Ice Planet Hoth, both, in my opinion, fully realized planets.)

To offer a counterpoint, I invite you to watch the new King Kong and see how Peter Jackson makes the lost island his own. Sure we’ve seen stampeding dinosaurs and man eating locusts, but Jackson was able to exceed our expectations because he and his team were gloriously inventive. He used his imagination liberally. He didn’t say, oh, they’ve all seen a jungle before. No need to really go into detail. Let their expectations do half the work for me. No, he played our expectations against us. The island became as much Jackson’s as it was Kong’s.

I think any writer will quickly enter hackdom if they persist in believing that you don’t have to describe an object just because it has been described by many before. The best writers who ever lived turned a sunrise into “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill” and men into “actors [who] persist in fancying [dreams] full of meaning and purpose as the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.”

Or you could just say, “the sun rose.”
Or you could just say, “the arrogant men.”
Or you could just say, “I lack imagination.  Let someone else do the work for me.”

7 Replies to “On top of a Rock, On top of Manhattan”

  1. On the other hand, a story will be a guaranteed fiasco if the writer devotes an inordinate amount of time to describing every object in detail–even objects that aren’t important to the story. For example, if two characters are talking and one happens to be holding a newspaper during their conversation, it could be a waste of time (and word count) to describe the newspaper in some original and inventive way. Just calling it a newspaper might suffice since we all know what a newspaper looks like. Now, if the writer wants to use the newspaper as more than a mere prop to reveal more about the character (e.g., Character A is obsessed with the stock market–so you specify he’s holding last week’s The Wall St. Journal), then it would make sense to spend some time describing it. But if it’s just a prop, the writer is better off spending his or her time (and the reader’s) describing other things.

  2. You can still be brief and make something wholly original. You can say “he read the newspaper” or you can say “the page after page of black text gave him nothing of the color of the world.” Granted, the second might be so-called “purple” to some readers, but in the second verse a newspaper becomes, as you said, more than a prop. It becomes something that reveals character. Isn’t that what all stories are about and what all authors aspire to do? Reveal character?

  3. I think you’re going down a rabbit-hole if you do that for every single noun in your story. I believe you have to pick and choose what’s significant enough to warrant a description or else you wind up with unnecessary verbiage that slows things down. Does the description reveal anything about character? Does it enhance mood or setting? Is it important to the plot? E.g., “He leaned against the two-year-old, red-and-white wallpaper.” Unless the description of the wallpaper is adding something important to the story, why bog down the reader with such a description?

  4. I’m not saying every sentence has to be revealing of character, nor does every single object have to be rendered in excruciating detail. I think that’s pointless and cumbersome.

    But nothing is so boring in my eyes as prose without color, i.e. “He walked inside his old house and sat down at the kitchen table. He looked outside at the window and the treeless yard and thought of his daughter. She was away at school.”

    Compare to: “The paint chipped from the eaves and the shutters leaned off their rusty hinges, but the man paid them no heed as he stepped through the squeaky screen door into his house. He walked through the musty, empty halls and sat in the kitchen before a bare wooden table that hadn’t seen a second face in more than a decade. He looked out at the yard through wilting glass, at the grasses burnt from the summer sun and the crooked slats of the fence that kept nothing out or in. In this yard not a single plant grew. This was not a window, the man thought, but a mirror. He looked not out but back at himself. The empty table. The empty house. He thought of his daughter, who was away at school.”

    Now, I know the second is not perfect. But wouldn’t you agree that the first one, which I see imitated a lot, is rather bland? The first style is what some have termed the “no-style” stylists. And this belief has engendered all sorts of “schemes” to clean up your work by attacking adverbs and adjectives as some kind of evil. I agree that “ran swiftly” can and should probably be replaced by “sped” or “sprinted” but adverbs and adjectives were designed to give color to language and without them (harking back to my earlier post) language becomes (to me) very black and white.

  5. I agree. In the example you give, the description is accomplishing multiple purposes (quite effectively, btw): revealing character and creating both a mood and a vivid setting.

    My point is that the writer has to carefully select what to describe in that manner–and not do so indiscriminately or without a purpose. Imagine a story where every noun has a string of adjectives next to it! I’d put that story down ASAP.

    No question though, in the examples you give, the second one is in a different league than the bland first one.

  6. I’m going to call “Context” on this again. Both above descriptions work. There is a place for bland, and there is a place for verbose. How and where is it used. In the second example, is this the first time we’ve ever seen this house? If not, then why do we need to be told again about the flaking paint, uneven fences, and burnt grass? Our first time seeing it, fine, but that’s it.

    What’s the mood? If the man is depressed, then the first example is more than acceptable. There are other contextual elements that would make that work as well, it all depends on what came before and after. Look at what Hemingway did with sentences just like those bland ones, put together effectively to tell the story.

    -Devin

  7. It’s true, Hemingway was sparse with words and he always had a deeper context bubbling under the surface. He was the master of subtlety, able to convey tons of meaning with very little prose.

    I suppose I was attacking the belief that sparse prose equals good prose. Perhaps I’m just an old fashioned fan of Poe and Lovecraft who dish out description in heaping spoonfuls. But, in The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway is very descriptive of the sea and the creatures that swarm in it.

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