Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Becoming a Word Artisan

"The Riverbank" by Henri Matisse
“My vision blurs. 
My lungs beg for oxygen.
His hands don’t relent.                                                       
And in this moment, I cradle a delicious thought.  Maybe this is it.  Maybe it’s finally over.  He can take my life from me.  He’s taken everything else.  Why not my heartbeat? I fight to remember Sissy and Jed.  In the struggle, I finger Elijah’s bracelet under my sleeve, touching the boy and girl charms, hoping they’ll forgive me for giving up so easily.  But as light halos my vision, and I sense the warmth of a love I’ve only tasted, I give myself to it, rest in it, feel its warmth.  I hear the Voice, beckoning, whispering the kind of words I’ve longed to understand my entire life.  Such beautiful, beautiful words.”
This is taken from page 192 of Life in Defiance by Mary DeMuth, the third book in a trilogy I highly enjoyed.    There are numerous places in this novel where I could feel my heart quickening and knew I couldn’t put it down until I felt a sense of “safety.” Through several scenes I noticed the quick intake of breath that lets you know a suspense reader has really hooked you.
I’ve been reading Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively in my quest to develop my own language usage.  I would recommend this primer if this is an area you would like to improve in your own writing and I especially appreciate the exercises included at the end of each chapter.
Aristotle in The Rhetoric of Aristotle tells the reader that good description should include four primary elements:
1)      It should be “appropriate in sound and sense.”  It should be worded well and place precise images in our mind.
2)      The reader should be able to “see” things.  We should include concrete and very specific description.
3)      As writers we should be “using expressions that represent things in a state of activity.”  Did you create a moving picture?
4)      Metaphor or other figurative language is often used.
(Word Painting, 9-10)
Let’s look at a classic example from Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (p.53):
Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.
OK, first we have to discount the fact that Montgomery has written one honking run-on sentence here breaking many of today’s literary mores.  She is too wordy by today’s standards, yet still I love this description and I believe it follows many of Aristotle’s standards here.
The reader can very precisely see the stream in their mind.  We also quickly have a clear picture of Mrs. Lynde, after which even the landscape is viewed through new eyes.
“Rahab felt her stomach drop.  What was her father scheming? Their voices grew too soft to overhear. Frustrated, she strode to the end of the garden. In a dilapidated pen, two skinny goats gnawed on the tips of a withered shrub, already stripped to bare wood.  With the men and Rahab working the fields every day, no one had cleaned the pen. A putrid stench assaulted her senses—an apt background for her roiling emotions, she thought…But the knot in her stomach tightened with each passing second.”
Wow, this descriptor catches me early on, bringing me into Rahab’s emotional world and Afshar uses smell, sight, sound and physical body movement aptly.  The reader feels the physical revulsion.
Who are some of your favorite "word artisans?"


Beth K. Vogt said...

OK, I've already ordered "Word Painting." I've had this book recommended more than once. It was past time that I bought it.
Your examples were so helpful, Julia--especially since I'm an L.M. Montgomery fan, run-on sentences or not.
Favorite word artisans: Rachel Hauck and Susie May Warren.

Julia M. Reffner said...


I think you'll enjoy Word Painting. The exercises are especially helpful. I agree, Susan is fantastic, have only read one of her books but will have to fix that soon and I don't believe I've read Rachel Hauck, but I'll need to add her to my list.

Joanne Sher said...

This books looks WONDERFUL - and like it would help me much. May have to pick it up. Great post!

Julia M. Reffner said...

Thanks, Joanne. I think it is a great read.

Mary Vee Writer said...

How unfortunate that Montgomery's sentence would be poo pood today. The sentence flowed as the river it described. I loved it. Is it really so wrong to write a sentence like that today? Well, not every one, but perhaps one planted in the right place?
Thanks Julia. Great post.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Great post, Julia. I loved your examples. As has been said, they really help emphasize what you're talking about. They put me in the setting immediately. I'm going to have to buy that book too. :)
My new favorite word artisans are Rachel Hauck (you do need to read her :)), and Liz Curtis Higgs.

Julia M. Reffner said...


I'm in agreement with you. I love her flowery style, even though it might not be appreciated today. I think one author that captures that beautiful old-fashioned style is Laura Frantz.

Julia M. Reffner said...


I loved Mine is the Night, so definitely have to go back and read the rest of the series. As a matter of fact I thought about including an example from that book as well.

Come to find I did read one Rachel Hauck, Dining with Joy and really enjoyed it. I want to look for her Southern series at the library, though, I love Southern fiction.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh, I defenitely need that book. Description and painting a scene is one of my weaknesses. I prefer dialogue and action. But obviously I need both. :)

Nice post and great examples!

Julia M. Reffner said...


Me, too...I much prefer dialogue...which is why I've been studying up hoping to improve.

Pepper said...

Great post, Julia. Word Painting is a fantastic book. It really slowed me down to consider how a well placed phrase can speak more than an entire paragraph.

And Anne of Green Gables - love it! Sure it's a different era of writing (like Austen), but it's flavor of descriptive is classic.

And Mine is the Night - WOWZERS!! I still 'feel' the effects of reading Liz's novel. FABULOUS!

Naomi Rawlings said...

Hmm... I've never read the book. Okay, I've never even heard of it, though I have heard "word painting" before. Anyway, my favorite "word painter" in the CBA would be Kristen Heitzmann, hands down. The woman is brilliant in that regard.

Angie Dicken said...

I am a sucker for great description. I recently began reading Siri Mitchell's She Walks In Beauty and found this word picture:
"Five minutes before the stroke of four, Aunt sailed down the staircase, resplendent in a visiting toilette. I fell into her wake as she passed by..." I love how she used "sailed" and "fell into her wake"...perfect!!