How to Write Descriptions

For the next essay “A Visit to Another Culture,” my students must physically place themselves in a new culture — it can be a new type of restaurant, a church service of another religion, dinner in the home of an immigrant friend, a visit to a Japanese supermarket, and so on. In the several years I have been giving this assignment, students have been inventive in their choices of experience, but no matter what they choose, description is going to be necessary.

Exercise: The students sat in a circle. I asked them to take a few minutes to look at each of their classmates (there are 19 students in each class) and to take note of each face and begin to construct descriptions. They blushed and giggled, but seemed to enjoy it and did look at each other carefully, alternating between staring and scanning.

I then read from a writing guide, The Handbook of Short Story Writing (though it could be any of a number of writing guides), in which author Ruth Engelken writes about various authors’ thoughts about descriptions, especially of people.  Somerset Maugham “found himself looking at [people] to see what animal they resembled”; Nabokov gave one of his characters “a fat glossy nose,” while James Joyce “speaks of ‘the wings of the nose.”  I read them the physical descriptions various authors had written of their characters.

Then I asked the students to stand up and take a few minutes to study each other again. This both gave them a variant sensation — standing rather than sitting — and a new view of their classmates.

With that preparation and modeling, I asked them to choose one of their classmates, and to write a description of him or her, without compunctions of any kind, since the resulting descriptions  would remain private. I wanted to encourage them to acknowledge flaws and unattractiveness as well as  pleasing aspects of each other.

I have no idea what they wrote, because I did not ask them to share, but they wrote diligently and seemed satisfied with their products.


Look for the next post which continues this exercise.

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