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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

On the pale road: the art of describing

It’s not just the words on the page — the inner dimension of written fiction is what the reader brings to the experience. One good way to look at this is to examine a couple of famous bits of description by great novelists. For me at least, what brings these examples to life is not their cleverness; it’s the connections they make between the writer’s words and what those bring up inside the reader.

These are both descriptions of distant, unfamiliar scenes. I’ve always remembered both of these; they both strike me with their simplicity and with how well they work. First is from the opening of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms:

Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

The impression he’s creating, of rural northern Italy during World War I, is far from any modern reader’s experience. Yet the repetition of simple words and phrases draws on familiar things: it’s easy to picture dust powdering leaves, and dust rising and leaves stirred by a breeze. The troops marching along the road are faceless, they pass by as a conflict does, and after we’re left with the exhausted landscape. It’s a passage that, once read, many many readers have never forgotten.

Here’s a description of an even more distant road: India’s greatest thoroughfare in the 1890s. This is from before motors, or mass transit, or almost anything we might see today; yet this piece, from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, comes so easily to life in the mind:

And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles — such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world. They looked at the green-arched, shade-flecked length of it, the white breadth speckled with slow-pacing folk; and the two-roomed police station opposite.

Somehow it’s as if I know this place, this second white-trodden road — one this time that carries a “river of life,” “the green-arched, shade-flecked length of it.”  I’ve always remembered that paragraph, in fact both of these. They are so simple; and for me they simply come alive.

We often try to be clever in writing because we want to make a good impression. But if a description makes me think, “Whoa, this person is so observant and clever,” then this is not a good description — because it calls attention to the writer instead of creating a scene in the reader’s mind.

In these two passages, the words themselves almost disappear. What's created instead is something like a memory: something we've experienced, something that's become real inside us. Something we may never forget.

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