What my Aunt Harriet taught me about writing descriptions

Even now, in her 90th year, Aunt Harriet is lively, alert and knowing. She looks at least ten years younger. Decades ago, when I was in high school and she was a young woman, she was quite a package—small, slim, with jet black hair cut short, bright eyes, a sly, quick smile.

In her younger years, Aunt Harriet had served in WW II, as a WAC in the Women’s Army Corp, I believe. I’ve seen a photograph of her in uniform, and she looked sharp. When the war was over, she went to art school, as I recall.

I have one particularly vivid memory of Aunt Harriet from my early teenage years. She and her new husband, a large, formidable man named Irving had come to visit my parents, Harriet being my mother’s youngest sister.

I was sitting in my bedroom, the one with the cowboy wallpaper, trying to write a paper for English class, listening to music—no one had a TV in his room in those days–not all that interested in aunts and uncles. To my surprise, Aunt Harriet popped her head in. “Watcha doin’, kiddo?” She asked, grinning. Her lips were very red. Women wore a lot of lipstick back then.

“English paper,” I said, glancing at her legs. She was wearing hose with seams.

“Can I see?” She said.

“Well, I’ve just started,” I told her, trying to put her off.

“Read it to me.”

“My 10th grade English paper?” I was a little leary. Whenever I let my mother—the former champion speller of the Akron, Ohio school system—read my English papers, she found every flaw in them, being at least as observant as Sherlock Holmes and much less forgiving. But Aunt Harriet was less dangerous and I couldn’t think of a way to say no.

“Sure, why not.”

“Go ahead,” she prodded.

“Okey dokey.” I cleared my throat and picked up the paper, hoping I’d be able to read my handwriting, which was, and remains, execrable. “The Game,” I said. I looked up at Aunt Harriet. “That’s the title.”

“Good,” she said, encouraging me.

I cleared my throat again. “The Game,” I repeated. “The band music started up,” I read, “The few men on the grassy field stood like statues. The forty-three thousand people surrounding them rose, simultaneously, put their hands over their hearts and everyone began to sing the National Anthem….” I paused. “That’s all I’ve got so far.”

Aunt Harriet nodded thoughtfully. “And it’s very good too. I felt like I was there, in the stadium.”

“But I never even mentioned the stadium.”

“Ah yes, but you didn’t have to,” Harriet said, with her sly grin. “What you wrote made the picture appear in my mind’s eye.”

“Really?” I said. “You know, I was thinking I should describe the stadium—the hot dog vendors, the rows of seats, the concrete stairways and tunnels…”

“Don’t have to,” said Aunt Harriet. “Everyone knows what those things look like. We all have a million images in our minds. You just called one up for me, in fact more than one.”

“I see. So the description isn’t necessary?” I was beginning to get the idea my admirable Aunt Harriet was giving me a compliment, and I was at an age when I was hungry for them. Of course, aren’t we always at that age?

“Well,” she said, “I’m an artist, not a writer. If I don’t put it on canvas, no one sees it. But words are different. And no, this time you didn’t need the description.”

I saw the opportunity to argue, which I loved to do when talking to an adult. “But so much of writing is description, you know, painting a picture in words.”

“That’s true,” Aunt Harriet conceded, “But a few words will do if the picture is already in the reader’s mind. If you tell him what he’s already seeing, he’ll be bored by your words. But if you’re talking about something he can’t picture—that’s when you need to describe, in detail. And he’ll want to read it.”

“You mean if the stadium was some kind of weird new building, or about to blow up,  or painted strange colors?”

Aunt Harried smiled. “Yes, that’s when you have to describe it. Or if the stadium is the focus of the story not just the backdrop.”

Typically, I wasn’t finished arguing. “Yeah, but I could describe it anyway couldn’t I, you know, just to show that I can describe things well, to impress the reader—or Miss Mahaffey.”

“Miss Mahaffey?”

“My English teacher.”

“Ah. Well, you could do that. But is that what your reader wants from you? Or does he want you to get on with the story?”

“But if I don’t describe something, if I use only a few words, the reader will have to figure it out for himself. He’ll have to provide the description, the picture in his mind’s eye.

Aunt Harriet thought a moment. “Yes he will, but that’s a good thing. It will make him feel smart. In a way, it’s a compliment.”

“Smart?”

“Yes. He’ll read those few words and realize what you’re talking about and smile at how clever he is, and maybe how clever you are.”

“Interesting,” I admitted. “So you’re saying I don’t have to describe something at length if I can say a few words that will picture in the reader’s mind?”

“That’s right, Harvey.”

“And the reader will like it when I do that?”

“Well, I did. I think your teacher…your reader will too.”

“Harriet?” It was my mother’s voice, calling upstairs.

“I’m up in Harvey’s room,” Aunt Harriet. “He’s been reading me…”

“No, no, no,” I whispered, pleading.

“He’s been reading me something from one of his school books,” she continued. She winked at me.

“Oh, okay,” said my mother. “Well, come on downstairs, both of you. Lunch is ready.”

My Aunt Harriet and I never talked about writing again and I don’t know if she’s read any of my books. But that little conversation stuck with me. And very often, when I launch into an elaborate, beautifully-written (I hope) description of something everyone can picture,  I ask myself, am I giving the reader an unnecessary demonstration of my lovely prose stylings, mostly for my benefit, or am I moving the story along, for his?

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About Harvey Ardman

I’m the author of twenty published books¬ including two spy thrillers, a popular history, and a number of ghost-written biographies, self-help books and similar non-fiction. I’ve also written many TV documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel and , A & E. In addition, I've written pieces for Business Week, the Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. I have a MS in journalism from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a BS in journalism from Northwestern University. My wife and I live in Maine.
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