I’m starting this experiment today. I’ll be following Maya Angelou’s writing ritual (adjusted somewhat to accommodate the fact that I can’t afford to rent a hotel room for a month and I don’t want to start drinking before noon every day.)
One of the things she did was start her writing day by reading beautiful language out loud. For her, that was almost always the Bible. I decided to read Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a novella I’ve read more than once before, that I truly love, and I thought that it might be inspirational.
It is. Of course it is.
The very first paragraph is the narrator describing his first New York City apartment. And it’s so descriptive, I felt myself there as I read it out loud.
I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train. The walls were stucco, and a color rather like tobacco-spit. Everywhere, in the bathroom too, there were prints of Roman ruins freckled brown with age. The single window looked out on a fire escape.
— Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Not only is that paragraph descriptive, it’s sensory. The chairs are hot and itchy. Between the prints freckled with age, the author putting us in mind of a hot train, and the tobacco-spit descriptor — the reader’s nose wrinkles with the mildewy smell of the place.
There can’t be much air flow with only one window. And since there is only one, it must have been open and without even mentioning it, Capote has made me think the narrator must be able to hear the East Seventies when he’s sitting on his red velvet chair. Just the fact that it’s in New York City gives me a whole set of unwritten descriptors. I know that there will be traffic and a lot of people, for instance.
But that window looks out on an escape, which for some reason gives me hope. Like this apartment is only a stop on the way somewhere better. Maybe the train reference added to that impression.
Describe your own first apartment.
Or, if you haven’t ever had one, describe your teenage bedroom. Close your eyes and remember it for a minute. Go beyond sight. Use all of your senses. If you want to, start by reading the Capote paragraph above out loud. Even type it out to get your fingers moving.
My first apartment.
In the early 1990s, Las Vegas was still cheap. My best friend and I were able to rent a one bedroom apartment for two hundred dollars a month. It was full of hand-me down furniture — a rocking chair I liberated with me from my bedroom at home, a futon someone gave Debbie, a dining room table and chairs we lugged up from the dumpster after a neighbor moved and couldn’t take it with them. A couple of weeks after we moved in, we snuck back to my stepmother’s house and took my stereo out of a window. Our main source of food was the pizza restaurant where we both worked. It had to feed an army, because most of the other people who worked with us — including one kid with a decent fake ID — lived in our apartment, too. Every night was a low-key party. Nothing hard. Just beer if we felt like putting our tips into it and left over pizza and a jumble of bodies at the end of it, all curled up together like puppies.
Now read your paragraph out loud.
How does it make you feel? Does nostalgia make some memories heightened or damp down others? What do you hope readers infer from your description?
I hope that my description of so many kids in their late teens living in my first apartment helps the reader imagine that it smelled like teenage bodies. And pizza. And maybe beer. I hope they pick up on the fact that I had to liberate my chair and sneak my own stereo out of a window at home and understand that this little apartment was an oasis for me. I hope that the mention of the stereo makes them think of music without me saying that we played it.
Resources for Descriptive Writing
Virginia Woolf is one of the most descriptive writers of all time. Her stream-of-conciousness style can be tough to get through — but her prose is gorgeous. One pretty common exercise for learning how to write descriptively is to read the passages in A Room of One’s Own where she describes two dinners: one at a men’s college and one at a women’s college.
Try describing the same thing (like a dinner) in two very different settings.
Read Chuck Palahniuk’s essay on Thought Verbs. (If you’ve already read it, read it again. It’s worth it.) What he’s talking about is basically descriptive writing. Describing — or showing — something instead of saying it with a thought verb. He has lots of examples in his essay.
Look through your manuscript and find a place where you’ve used a thought verb. Expand it into a descriptive ‘telling’ paragraph using Palahniuk’s advice.
Check out Rebecca McClanahan’s book Work Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.