A challenge of imagery that spoke to me from the readings [from the class I was taking] was that of using too much description. This is something that I often encounter in my own storytelling. Coming to writing from the vantage point of a visual artist, I sometimes become so overwhelmed by the picture in my mind that I get lost in describing every small detail. Also, many of the authors that I have followed closely throughout my life wrote on the broader side of imagery rather than the narrower. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s sweeping descriptions of the gardens and hollows of Prince Edward Island in the Anne and Emily series, and Ayn Rand’s painterly images of landscapes and architecture in The Fountainhead, doubtlessly influenced my ambition to capture the bigger picture.
To counter this challenge, I hope to improve in the art of using the visual tell, a single image to describe a larger scene, situation, or character. There were some great examples of “the tell” in the reading. “At this, her cell phone rang. The woman raised it to her ear and a great many silver bracelets clattered down her arm.” (David Sedaris, “Standing By”, Burroway 30) The single image of the silver bracelets said much more about the woman than that she liked to wear bracelets. Another good, simple example comes from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”. “This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field.” (Burroway 37). While the description does go on for another sentence, just the heat and the field alone describe a vivid picture.
I like this technique because it asks the reader to fill in the details of a situation from their own experiences. Did the woman with the silver bracelets evoke a ditzy aunt who bought all of those bracelets from souvenir stalls on the beach on her rambling journeys around the world? Or was she a former boss, who shopped only at expensive boutiques, paid a fortune for each name-branded bangle, and enjoyed jingling them for attention as much as possible? The art of the “tell”, for me, is in choosing a detail that is specific enough to evoke a memory, but general enough that the memory might be just a bit individualized for each reader.
A method that I would like to try to help employ this technique is writing a very broad picture, and then condensing it into a single, brief image. A good exercise for this might be to look at a painting, describe the details, and then express the painting in just a sentence or two. The Mona Lisa could go from “A woman who is not old, yet past the point where anyone would call her young, looks out to an area far aside the viewer. She is painted in shades of sienna and umber, her clothing somber. Yet her dress is drawn in rich detail in some areas, like the intricate lace across the bodice. A sketchy landscape is loosely filled in behind her, shadows of gray and green. She is plain, yet striking. She smiles as if she knows everything.” could become, “The plain woman painted in brown looks aside, and smiles, almost. She knows everything.” It eliminates the aspects of the painting that are less important, like the details of the dress and background, and highlights what is important, the infamous smile. At the same time, it allows for individualized interpretation, too. Who is the plain woman in the reader’s life who knows everything? What does she do? How does she know everything? The answers could vary narrowly or widely, depending on the chosen imagery and context, and make the reading experience unique for everyone.