August 16, 2016
"The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true."
Describing things as they are instead of as you think they are or as you wish them to be takes a bit of talent and a lot of time. Writing about what people, places, and things look like is harder than it seems because we can’t help putting our own ideas and emotions into what we are seeing.
For Assignment Five I choose to observe a child in action and write what I see, and my choice is the kid next door because he is so different from my son. I think this dichotomy will make for interesting writing. He comes over all the time anyway, so getting him here is no big deal. The boys are playing X-Box in the front room when I sidle in to record my observations. It’s the first time in my life that I’m writing about what I see and not what I think. What a difference it makes!
My focus is on each detail instead of analyzing psychology. It’s simultaneously easier and more difficult. I must notice and note each detail in a way that ensures another person will see it as I do. This is more like being an artist, I think. Only I’m trying not to take artistic license, instead, I want to show exactly what I see as it happens. My observation lasts only about ten minutes or less, but I get more out of that experience than I expect. I begin to see the world differently. It reminds me of one my most favorite writers, John Steinbeck.
I take Of Mice and Men down from my bookshelf and read it. In its opening chapter, Steinbeck records what the countryside in front of his ranch looks like with no opinion or emotion.
“On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees- willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter's flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool.”
He does what my instructor suggests I need to do. Steinbeck is sparing with his words, uses the exact right word to mean what he says, and lets his reader think. I’m beginning to understand why my instructor is such a stickler for this kind of work. I’ll be honest, I sometimes feel like my instructor doesn’t like me. I struggle with my wanting to get better at writing and my need to be told I’m good at writing. My instructor is doing his job. He tells me what I need to do and why. He shows me where I might change parts to say more of what I mean.
Since the assignment is about describing a person, I look further into Of Mice and Men for a character description to see if Steinbeck continues in this "show don’t tell" manner.
“They had walked in single file down the path, and even in the open one stayed behind the other. Both were dressed in denim trousers and in denim coats with brass buttons. Both wore black, shapeless hats and both carried tight blanket rolls slung over their shoulders. The first man was small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features. Every part of him was defined: small, strong hands, slender arms, a thin and bony nose. Behind him walked his opposite, a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, and wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides,but hung loosely.”
This passage astounds me. I read through my description of my neighbor boy. I need new words to describe the length of their arms, their eyes, and their shapes. I need to take some kind of a vocabulary lesson. Of course I know thousands of words and because I read a lot, I actually have quite a good vocabulary, but I need the kinds of words that don’t always come to the forefront of one’s brain instantaneously. I need to surround myself with words. I resolve to buy a new notebook specifically for improving my vocabulary. I plan to check out apps designed to improve my vocab so I can learn on my phone when I’m waiting for people. I already know the basics for improving my vocabulary.
1. Be aware of words
3. Use a dictionary
4. Study and review regularly
It’s the fourth one that I’m not using. I set a new goal of studying and reviewing words more regularly. As I head into my eighth year of teaching, I know how important it is to set learning goals early in the year and to revisit them each week or month. When I get my new notebook, I plan to write those four ways to improve vocabulary on the first page and remember to honor them daily.
To compare myself to Steinbeck may seem like too much pressure, but as my father once told me after reading every one of Steinbeck’s books, “He takes you to where you want to be.” I want to be the kind of writer who takes readers to where they want to be. This assignment and my study of Steinbeck’s novels is helping me get there. Shooting low helps you get low, right? I aim high because that’s where I want to go.
"The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty." -John Steinbeck
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Kimberley Moran's site
Kimberley Moran is a gifted and talented teacher and freelance writer who lives in Hampden, Maine. She has two children and one very nice husband. Kimberley would like her bio to make her sound brilliant, witty, and kind because she knows that when you write and read you get to be anyone you want to be.
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