During my formative years (for the inquisitive, midway through the Cretacous) it seems that I developed a skill that is proving useful since I became, o Frabjous Joy, a Writer. I had no idea then that I was nuturing a Writing Skill; it seemed too much like fun to be preparation for anything, much as reading Henry Hay was. You remember Henry, I wrote about him in Sleight of Verb.
It was a Skill that required patience, fitness, and the ability to remain perfectly still and calm while insects crawled over one's bare skin and inside one's clothing. Any resemblance here to a writing critique group is, of course, purely coincidental.
I'm talking about Observation.
I spent an inordinate amount of youth wandering around in The Bush. The Bush covers major portions of my Island home (though indeed rather less major now...), and is home to a variety of animals, birds, snakes, scorpions, spiders, centipedes, hog lice, regular lice, Poisonwood trees, Haulback trees (a species thornier than James Frey's problems), and the occasional Haitian footpath.
I have watched, and trapped, just about everything here. I once sat, at night, in The Bush, long enough and still enough, to watch a raccoon make a meal of crabs that were feeding on discarded watermelons. Neither the crabs, some of which crawled over me, nor the raccoon, realized I was there. I know how long it takes for an Black Widow spider to spin a web tunnel, and the pattern of her weaving. I know that some lizards have transparent heart muscles. Don't ask. I can look at a track and tell you how old it probably is, what made it, and usually its gender.
What has this got to do with Writing?
I realized, soon after I started Writing seriously, that I was paying much more attention to everything; the color of someone's eyes, the smell of wet grass after rain, the sound of a creaking door. And I started to ask myself how would I describe that?
For descriptive writing, though it seems to have fallen upon hard times, is based upon, in the first instance, vivid, crytallized details first seen through the Writer's eye, and then translated to the page. In this way the reader is sensually bombarded in such a way as to produce an emotional response before, or apart from, that produced by the terrible problems with which the author afflicts his characters, otherwise known as The Plot. It is even distinct from any emotional investment which the reader may be manipulated into bestowing upon the characters themselves, otherwise known as Bloody Good Writing.
In fact, Setting may itself be considered a kind of character: one which mimics or counterbalances a scene; or a character's feelings; or even the character themselves, and should be described appropriately. The Vale of Gorgoroth, the planet of Caladan, Hogwarts, Pemberley, Perelandra's Sea.
And the description must not slow down The Story, must contain specific sensory details, and contain very few labelling adjectives; the adjectives must call the object what it is in itself, that bring out the definite qualities and quantities of the object.
So much for the usefulness of Observation to the Writer. We have to first See what we write about.
But in the words of Anne Sexton, "Sometimes the soul takes pictures of things it has wished for but never seen..."
Now that requires quite another Skill.
Another blog for another time.