Prettier in Pink (kirixchi) wrote in _blank_pages_,
Prettier in Pink

The Proper and Special Name of a Thing


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From <i><a href=“”>Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively</a></i> by Rebecca McClanahan

<lj-cut text="The Proper and Special Name of a Thing">

It makes sense that Aristotle begins his discussion of description with the importance of the individual word, “the proper and special name of a thing.” Naming is universally regarded as one of the first acts, if not <i>the</i> first act, of creation. In the Genesis account, God <i>said</i> let there be, and there was. The world sprang to life through the power of the word. Until <i>light</i> was spoken, the earth was formless, a void. But once light was named, and its fraternal twin, darkness, the world of possibility opened up. And the evening and the morning were the first poem.

Naming is so basic to the writing process, so intricately woven into every effective description, that we often overlook its importance. Yet without this first act, without a precise, significant and musical naming, no description can be attempted, no work of literature born.

But creating a literary work is not the same as creating the world, and we must forgive ourselves in advance for not being God. No matter how long we study a lake or our grandfather’s handsaw or our husband’s mustache, and no matter how hard we labor to bring forth a precise, significant and musical description of what we see, we will not be able to recreate reality. Nor to capture it. “I know I cannot paint a flower,” wrote Georgia O’Keeffe, “but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experience of the of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time.”

Unlike visual artists, we have no brushes, no claw, no glazes, no many-colored palette to aid us in describing our world. And unlike performing artists, we have no keyboard, no trombone, no toe shoes, no tutu, no midair leap with which to stun our audience and ourselves. What we have is the alphabet, that small but loyal band of vowels and consonants.

Since the word is our only tool, we cannot afford to be imprecise, to say <i>knife</i> when we mean <i>scalpel</i>; fictional blood might be shed. Nor can we afford to squander five letters on saying that it was a green tablecloth when green has nothing to do with the scene that we are trying to portray. <i>Green</i>, although it is an accurate naming, will not serve in this case. And what is <i>ripple</i> doing in the middle of a poem about the weight of loneliness? <i>Ripple</i> weighs close to nothing. It tiptoes across the ear. It is a bad choice.

<i><b>An Accurate Naming</i></b>

The first test of naming is accuracy. Part of a writer’s job is to learn the exact names of things and to have more than a passing acquaintance with them. When we read an essay by Richard Selzer, we trust he is naming the surgical instruments correctly. In the same way, we trust Annie Dillard to know the difference between a beetle and a scorpion, and to describe their exoskeletons precisely. And when poet Mary Oliver writes “long-billed curlew,” we must be assured that she does not mean “great horned owl.” Though the reader may not know the exact name for everything in a piece of writing, he nevertheless expects the writer to know.

Every world has its own vocabulary, even those worlds that might seem simple or mundane, and precise naming takes up deeper into the world being described. You probably cannot write a convincing story about a beauty salon, for instance, without knowing the difference between a tint and a dye, or between a set-and-style and a permanent wave. It might also help to know how long each procedure takes, and how much it costs. If you’re writing a story from the point of view of a high school biology teacher, you may need to know not only what your students are wearing but also how to properly prepare a slide and dissect a fetal pig, and how to fill out a midterm grade report.

Finding out the names of things, their histories and how they work often requires outside research. This applies to the writing of fiction and poetry as well as to nonfiction writing. In the midst of revising a short story about a girl who helps deliver a calf, I realized I knew almost nothing about the subject. I spent the next two days in the library, and the following day at a local farm interviewing a farmer. The best way to learn would have been to deliver a calf with my own hands, but it was winter and I had a deadline.

Before I sent the final version to my editor, I asked the farmer to read the description of the delivery. Other than an error in my use of the term <i>freemartin</i>, which I set about to correct, my description met the farmer’s standards. “Yes ma’am,” he said, “that’s just how it is, you got it right. That’s exactly how a calf is born, cord and all.” (a freemartin, for those of you who are wondering, is the female twin of a bull calf. I’ve been waiting three sentences to tell you. Aristotle was right. What a joy to find “the proper and special name of a thing.”)

<b><i>A Significant Naming</i></b>
Precision extends beyond mere accuracy. Although there might be several correct names for something, according to Aristotle “one word may come closer than another to the thing described…set it more distinctly before our eyes.” For example, if you were describing a girl’s white face, <i>milke, bloodless,</i> and <i>alabaster</i> would all pass the correctness test; all refer to whiteness. Yet each word brings forth a different visual image. While milky skin calls out to be touched, <i>bloodless</i> connotes a sickly, perhaps deathly countenance. And <i>alabaster</i>, though it might look good on a statue, suggests an unearthly qualify. Although all three girls have white skin- you named the color accurately- they are three different girls. The one with the alabaster skin belongs on a pedestal; the one with bloodless skin, in an ambulance. And the girl with skin of milky white? Well yes, go ahead. Reach out and touch her.

Word choice, then, refers not only to correctness but to precision of image. We must go beyond selecting the correct name for something. We must also select the word that will call forth the significant image, attitude and emotion our story requires.

<b><i>A Musical Naming</i></b>

Finally, our naming must be musically precise. That is, the sounds of our words must reinforce their imagistic and emotional content. To return to an earlier example, <i>ripple</i> is probably not the best word to use in a poem describing the weight of loneliness. Not only does the word <i> mean</i> something slight, almost insignificant; it <i>sounds</i> slight. The short <i>i</i> is a bantam-weight vowel, the lightest, most childlike sound in our language. Furthermore, the word’s consonants slide easily into one another like liquid evaporating into mist. As softly as it began, the word ends. Not with a band, but a whimper.

A more weighty choice would have been a word like <i>stone</i> or <i>root</i> or <i>nobody</i>. Is there a vowel more heavy or sad than the long <i>o</i>? It hollows out the mouth, intones the deepest sorrow. In “the Philosophy of Composition,” Poe discusses his choice of <i>nevermore</i> as the refrain in “The Raven.” He wanted a word that was “sonorous and susceptible of protected emphasis,” which led him inevitably to the long <i>o</i>, “the most sonorous vowel.”

It isn’t merely the long vowel that makes <i>stone</i> and <i>root</i> weigh more than <i>ripple</i>. Because they are one-syllable words, their individual heft is felt as we place them on the page or as we read them. And their ending sounds make a strong final impression. The <i>t</i> or <i>root</i> supplies an abrupt ending, closing down completely, which the <i>n</i> of <i>stone</i> remains before our eyes and deep in our throats, providing weight and texture to reinforce the word’s heaviness. Later we’ll discuss in more detail how the sounds and rhythms of individual words, phrases and sentences affect our descriptions. For now, its enough to remember that effective description requires not only an accurate and appropriate naming, but a musical naming as well.

<b><i>The Backdoor Technique</i></b>

Sometimes the best way to name an object, person, or scene is by way of what it is <i>not</i>. After reading <a href=“”>“Sonnet 130,”</a> we don’t know what the eyes of Shakespeare’s mistress look like, only that they “are nothing like the sun.” Likewise, in her cheeks, no roses; and in her voice, no music. From the list of what she is not, the reader fashions his own mental picture.

This sonnet has been categorized by some scholars as anti-Petrarchan, meaning that it purposely eschews the attributes an Elizabethan sonneteer might commonly assign to his beloved. But Shakespeare’s poem goes beyond rebellion against established literary conventions. His technique of negation, describing his mistress in terms of what she is not, also allows him to avoid clichés (rosy cheeks, musical voice) while leaving room for the reader to supply his own image of the beloved.

The technique of description-by-negation works well when the object being described is viewed as ideal- a mistress, a beautiful scene, a lofty idea. For these subjects, a direct approach would likely yield sentimentality or cliché. Arguably the most famous piece of writing employing the “back-door technique is found in the New Testament, in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, often referred to as “the love chapter.” Is there any subject that invites more sentimentality or cliché? Yet, in his description of love (or “charity”) the author is able to avoid these traps, in part by listing the qualities that love does <i>not</i> contain:

<font size="-2">…charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up…
doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily
provoked, thinketh no evil. Rejoiceth not in iniquity…</font>

Describing by negation also opens up physical spaces otherwise closed to characters, narrators and readers. In Normal MacLean’s <i>Young Men and Fire</i>, he details a scene that would be impossible for someone to witness and still live to tell about. In the following passage, he describes the last few minutes of several firefighter’s lives:

<font size="-2">It is really not possible to see the center of a blowup because the
smoke only occasionally lifts, and when it does all that can be seen
are pieces, pieces of death flying around looking for you—burning
cones, branches circling on wings, a log in flight without a propeller…</font>

The back-door technique provides entry not only into physical landscapes but psychic landscapes as well. Describing something in terms of what you don’t see, hear or know reinforces a feeling of emotional distance. In “The Secret Sharer” Joseph Conrad reveals, by way of negation, the aloneness the young captain experiences before the ship embarks:

<font size="-2">At that moment I was alone on her decks. There was not a sound
in her—and nothing around us moved, nothing lived, not a canoe
on the water, not a bird in the air, not a cloud in the sky.</font>

You can also employ the back-door technique to create ironic or comic touches:

<font size="-2">The new secretary squeaked by his desk in crepe-soles oxfords.
Marilyn Monroe, she wasn’t.</font><font size="-2"></font>

Or to introduce a fantastic or surreal setting:

<font size="-2">What she saw in her dream bore no resemblance to her earthly,
Daylit home. Gone was the sturdy pin oak, the brick columns,
The white fence stretching to the end of the driveway…</font>
The back-door technique can also build suspense, demonstrating the confusion or disorientation of the viewer:

Up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…

When the back-door technique is sustained, as in Ivan Turgenev’s “The Tryst,” it also builds rhetorical suspense. Here’s Turgenev’s description-by-negotiation of a birch grove in early autumn when the leaves first begin to fall:

<font size="-2">It was not the cheerful, laughing rustle of springtime, not the soft
whispering, not the long conversation of summer, not the cold and
timid stammering of late autumn, but a barely audible, dreamy chatter.</font>

The repetition of “it was not” slows down the revelation—a kind of verbal teasing—and the reader rushes forward, eager to reach the descriptive climax. Okay, we gasp. If it’s not this, and it’s not this, and it’s not this, then what is it? When we finally reach the phrase that actually describes the early autumn sounds, we’re not disappointed, although the description consists of only five words: “a barely audible, dreamy chatter.” By saving the actual description until the end of the passage, Turgenev holds our suspense.

Pick at least TWO of the following and use them to “warm up” your brain as you prepare for the writing assignment.

1. PROMPT: Make a list of terms associated with your vocation or avocation, or with a line of work you’re interested in, perhaps a job you main character holds. In <i>On Fire</i>, Larry Brown lists some of the equipment of his fireman’s world:

<font size="-2">…ladders, axes, forcible entry tools, rappelling gear, ropes,
safety belts, breathing apparatus, nozzles, generators, a Hurst
Tool (Jaws of Life), flashlights, pike poles, entry saws, boltcutters,
fire extinguishers…</font> <font size="-2"></font>

After you’ve made your list, choose several terms from the list and expand them into descriptive phrases. Combine these phrases to make a complete sensory description. You might try the “I love” technique that Brown employs:

<font size="-2">I love my old torn-up boots, the toes skinned and burned, my
wrinkled gloves, sootstreaked and charred, my dirty coat and
frayed turnout pants.

I love to go down on the floor and see the smoke over me, worm
my way forward to the fire, the hose hard as a brick, the scuffed
rubber on the end of the fog nozzle. I love the two-and-a-half-inch
hoses and the big chrome nozzles that no man can hold, the red
axes and the pry bars and the pike poles that we tear down
ceilings with…</font>

2. PROMPT: Write a description for an article of clothing that will appear in a catalogue unaccompanied by an illustration. Your job is not only to describe the item accurately, but to entice a customer to buy it. Begin with the basics: name the article precisely and list available colors (be inventive) and fabrics. Then describe, in detail, each distinguishing feature. Finally, set the fantasy scene for the customer. Where might he wear the item? How will this article of clothing change his image, his life?

3. PROMPT: Starting with the same article of clothing (see exercise 2), write another description. This time, imagine you own the item. It is, in fact, your favorite piece of clothing. Your sister (or brother or best friend) has written to you, asking to borrow the item to wear for an upcoming event. She’s never seen the item, but she’s heard through the grapevine it’s quite a find. You don’t want to loan it to her, but you don’t want to tell her that. Write the description you’d include in your response. Remember, you’re trying to convince her it’s <i>not</i> such a find after all.

4. PROMPT: Write descriptions for five different entrees to be served at an upscale restaurant. These are descriptions the waiters will recite, word for word, to diners. Be sure to include not only the name of the dish and its ingredients but also details about how it will be prepared and served.

5. PROMPT: Choose a piece of furniture in your home that holds at least four objects. I’d probably choose my writing desk which is crowded with coffee cups, pens, books, rubber bands, a sleeping cat, unsent letters, photographs and mementos. You might choose your dresser or the dining room table. Before you begin to describe the objects, select a method for ordering your description. You might decided, for instance, on spatial ordering, working from right to left or from front to back. You could order the objects in terms of size, shape, texture or any other sensory quality. Or you might describe the objects in order of their significance—emotionally, practically, or aesthetically.

6. PROMPT: Using this chapter’s suggestions for using the “back-door technique,” describe an object or place in terms of what it is <i>not</i>.

Adapted from <a href=> Room to Write</a> by Bonni Goldberg, page 109.

PROMPT: Write what you <strike>don’t</strike> know:
Today, write about something you <I>haven’t</I> done: piloting an airplane, skinning an animal, teaching English as a second language, water-skiing. It could be something you’ve read about, observed, or simply dreamed of doing. Keeping what we learned about today in mind, do some basic research on the specific language associated with what you are discussing, but feel free to make up words that you can’t find. Use concrete, specific details. Try to make the scene believable.

PROMPT: Write what you <I>do </I> know:
What is something unique that you have had an opportunity to do? (ex: climb a mountain, perform in a circus, race stock cars, etc.). Write a scene (it can be fictionalized) employing the “specific language” and unique, concrete details associated with that activity.

PROMPT: Write what you <I>do</I>. What is your job or your “dream job”? Following the “I love…” example cited about (as loosely as you feel like it), write about things that you love about your job, being as specific as possible.


The assignment is due Thursday at 12 Noon, EST. I will (try to) post the new assignment Thursday morning.

Please answer the following questions as well, if you get a chance:

1. Are the snippets from the book helpful, or would you rather have straight prompts?
2. Would you like to have a “featured member” each week to C&C? I think that commenting on everyone’s every week would be too much, but it could be helpful.
3. Is there enough time for the assignments?
4. Would you prefer to have longer assignments and more time to do them?
5. Are you interested in gearing this group toward developing a longer piece of fiction (for example, following “The Marshall Plan” or “Get that Novel Written”, etc., or do you prefer to keep things as they are- working on the building blocks of writing on a micro level?


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