This week, a student of mine gave me the latest issue of National Geographic which features an article about a church in Sicily that contains the remains of nearly 2000 mummified corpses. While the photographs of these centuries-old priests and parishioners were repulsively intriguing, one portion of text jumped out at me:
“A number of bodies are still kept in their elaborate coffins. Gingerly, I lift a heavy lid that may have not been moved for over a century and peer inside. The air seems to escape with a thick sigh, and the smell grabs the back of my throat—not a rotten smell but the odor of beef tea and the clogging aroma of dry mold and fine, powdery layers of human dust. It’s a smell that is dramatically unforgettable, the tincture of silence and sadness, the scent of repeated prayer heard from a distance, or of remorse and regret, a smell that’s both repellent and intimately familiar. Something sensed for the first time, but also with a strange and compelling sense of déjà vu.”
Wow! Although I’ve never encountered the realities of death and decay on a level like this, the descriptive power of these lines transports me to a place that is worlds away from my own experience, and for a brief moment, I gain a sense of what it must have been like to peer into the abyss of this author’s mortality. Such is the power of words, and as a writer, I am both intrigued and intimidated by lines that capture the essence of an experience as poignantly and profoundly as these do for me.
I think all writers struggle at times to give shape to their characters’ experiences, although some authors appear to do it so effortlessly. For example, take a look at Charles Frazier’s depiction of the Confederate hospital in the opening pages of his novel, Cold Mountain:
“At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward. He flapped the flies away with his hands and looked across the foot of his bed to an open triple-hung window.”
Or watch how Frazier relays the details of Inman’s battle wound:
“At the hospital, the doctors looked at him and said there was not much they could do…They gave him but a gray rag and a little basin to clean his own wound…But mainly the wound had wanted to clean itself. Before it had started scabbing, it spit out a number of things: a collar button and a piece of wool collar from the shirt he had been wearing when he was hit, a shard of soft gray metal as big as a quarter dollar piece, and unaccountably, something that closely resembled a peach pit. That last he set on the nightstand and studied for some days. He could never settle his mind on whether it was a part of him or not.”
I read lines like this and I wonder how anyone could describe that scene better than he has just done. Likewise, witness James Joyce’s description of Stephen Dedalus’ encounter with a young girl in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Those familiar with the novel will recall that this is a transformative moment for Dedalus as the young, would-be priest decides to turn his back on a religious vocation and instead devote his life to artistic pursuits.
“A girl stood before him in midstream: alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and softhued as ivory, were barred almost to the hips where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish, and touched the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.”
Or consider how another Irishman, Frank McCourt, depicts the people of Limerick as they seek refuge from the rain in his memoir Angela’s Ashes:
“The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges…From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from the damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week’s wages.”
These authors all display an amazing knack for bringing their scenes to life, and it’s fun to allow their words to transport us into their worlds, both real and imagined. Other times, it’s interesting to see an author searching desperately for just the right words to convey an experience. For example, witness John Wesley Powell’s description of the Southwestern landscape in his 1895 travelogue, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons:
“The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock—cliffs of rock, tables of rock, plateaus of rock, terraces of rock, crags of rock—ten thousand strangely carved forms; rocks everywhere, and no vegetation, no soil, no sand. In long, gentle curves the river winds about these rocks…When thinking of these rocks one must not conceive of piles of boulders or heaps of fragments, but of a whole land of naked rock, with giant forms carved on it: cathedral-shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled, and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance, with vast, hollow domes and tall pinnacles and shafts set on the verge overhead; and all highly colored—buff, gray, red, brown, and chocolate—never lichened, never moss-covered, but bare, and often polished.”
You can almost feel the tough, one-armed explorer groping for the perfect combination of nouns and adjectives to help render a tiny glimpse of this vast and virtually indescribable landscape. Now anyone who has seen the Grand Canyon will likely agree that, even as skilled as his descriptions are, Powell still comes up a bit short. But his attempt is certainly better than most, and at the very least, you have to admire his courage for trying. Ultimately, that’s all any writer can do, and like Powell, we must forge ahead and give our best efforts despite the nagging fear that we may fail.
Those of us who enjoy reading and writing often return to our favorite passages from our favorite books simply to enjoy the scenes once again or, perhaps at some level, we hope to somehow absorb a portion of the talent reflected in those sentences. Great descriptions refresh and inspire us, and like thirsty pilgrims drinking water from a well, they sustain our creative souls. If we are lucky, perhaps we will find the right words to transport readers into those worlds crafted deep inside our own imaginations.