Nailing Description

Margaret Laurence – A Way With Words

I’ve been slowly making my way through books that I bought at a flea market. They were in a dusty, dirty old cardboard box, a treasure trove, if perfect condition is not a requirement for good reading. I talked about one of these books in a previous post (Practice Makes Perfect). I just started reading another, “The Fire-Dwellers” by Margaret Laurence. I didn’t know anything about the author. I just read the first page, found the style (no quotes; stream of consciousness-like dialogue) intriguing.

I tend toward incomplete sentences (anyone notice?) and found it validating to read text that feels right to me even if it’s somewhat cryptic at times. However, that is not what led me to look up who this author is. By the quality of her writing, I knew she must be someone well known if not to me, then to others.

Her writing is rich with voice, with descriptions that nail it perfectly. She describes traffic as “two shoals of great metallic fish, frantic to get back to the spawning grounds…”1 Can’t you just see the vehicles pushing forward, cutting each other off, all on an urgent mission that disregards the next?

Read how she described a beat-up cheap motel: “…the rooms are scantily clad in imitation furniture, the table covered with burn scars and wet beer bottle circles, the floor buckling linoleum…”1

Wow! That’s what I say. I can see this room and feel the atmosphere, even smell it without one word said about odor.

In another place she describes white seagulls circling at a waterfront along the city: “They aren’t prophets, though. They only look it, angelic presences and voices like gravel out of a grave.” 1  

According to Wikipedia, Margaret Laurence was a major figure in Canadian literature. Judging by the little I’ve read, I feel like it should say she is a major figure in literature who happens to be Canadian.

Reading the work of an author of a different style, a different era, challenges me to try harder. Yes, it does take effort. I believe I have it in me to write with as much pointed description as Margaret Laurence has. But I’m not going to see that maturity in my writing if I don’t work at it, don’t stop at good enough but push deeper until I dig out, clean off and reveal the gem.

Who inspires you to go to the next level? If no one has lately, you might want to hunt in a box of old books, see what you find.

Happy Writing!

1 Margaret Laurence “The Fire-Dwellers” Published 1969 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York

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