The overall idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for several days.
As always, post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at daniel wallace at gmail).
Day Ten: Write the Unwritable
GLOUCESTER, MA—Admitting that he has “absolutely no idea how other authors do it,” novelist Edward Milligan, 46, told reporters Tuesday that he’s just no good at all when it comes to describing people’s hands in his writing.
“I’m fine with most details, but for some reason hands completely and utterly elude me,” said Milligan, who recently described a character’s hands as “dangling around like big, meaty spiders.” “I’ll often create an entirely fleshed-out character, and write easily at length about their face, their personality, their voice, their hopes, dreams, and desires, but then I try to describe their damn hands and it ruins the whole story.”
The Onion — Frustrated Novelist No Good At Describing Hands
Some things, prose depicts very easily.
It seems easy to describe someone’s thoughts. It seems easy to describe what a place looks like. It seems easy to present someone’s dialogue.
But other things are genuinely hard. And it’s not just hands. Many kinetic, corporal experiences seem tough to depict in a full, sensual, “there” way.
This is probably why sex is famously so easy to get wrong. But it’s also about much smaller, briefer human experiences. As others have remarked — describing the feeling of meeting someone’s eye when that person refuses to look away is hard to do in words.
This exercise is simple, in theory.
Write out a full, detailed description, in one or two sentences, avoiding not just cliches and purple prose, but also merely referential prose (“he fell and hurt his foot”), as though the moment were happening to a character from in your own work in progress or intended story, of two or three of the following:
- Walking down a flight of stairs and slipping one step, with the feeling of suddenly flying.
- Swinging a hand and unexpectedly touching someone else’s, someone who you should not be touching.
- Saying something in a tone of gentle adminition or warning to a friend in a public and having that friend, in response, stare at you in unexpected anger.
- Continue to stare at someone even though you know you shouldn’t.