In his epic story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” Adam Johnson uses a strategy for writing descriptions that has fundamentally influenced how I write my own. It’s also a strategy that I see everywhere, in books of all kinds, and I recently came across it once again in Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans.” It was published in a relatively new journal that is already developing a reputation for quality work, Tahoma Literary Review. At the TLR website, you can read the story, and the entire issue of the journal, as a pdf.
How the Story Works
In some ways, Johnson’s story, one of the longest (maybe the longest) story ever published in Tin House, has little in common with Freele’s story, which clocks in at just three pages. Yet both stories use the same approach to description.
Here is a passage from the beginning of Johnson’s story:
The boarded-up Outback Steakhouse next door is swamped with FEMA campers, and a darkened AMC 16 is a Lollapalooza of urban camping. It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware. How do you tell your thin bed sheets from your neighbor’s? Can you separate your yellowed, mismatched Tupperware from the world’s? And there are mountains of all-new crap. Outside the campers are bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills, which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.
In this passage, a pattern develops: give details and then tell the reader how to understand those details. So, we see the parking lots full of campers and then get the line, “It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of.” The same thing happens at the end of the passage. We see the laundry bins, porch chairs, and grills, and then we get this line: “which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.”
Of course, Johnson reverses the pattern as well: “it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware.” In that line, he tells us how to understand the list that follows. Mostly, though, throughout the story, a list of details is summed up with a line that indicates how to understand those details. It’s an incredibly effective strategy, as the paragraph from “Hurricanes Anonymous” makes clear.
Now, here is a passage from Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans”:
The crotch in Maribel’s white tights scoots even lower, half-way down her thighs as she enters the hot holiday-decorated living room. The insides of her legs itch and are already chafing from the short walk across the icy parking lot and up the green carpeted stairs that smell like mold and rain, a confining smell she will forever associate with Great Aunt Agnes. She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.
The description is no longer about setting, as it was in Johnson’s story. Instead, it’s become personal, a description of a character’s clothes and the way they make her feel. Still, the strategy is the same: details and interpretation. We see the tights and her thighs, the itching and chafing, and the claustrophobia of these details is connected to setting with the moldy carpet. Then, we get that last line, which adds the character’s thoughts: “She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.”
The details probably made you feel a certain way, but the words hates and nonsense point us in a clear direction for understanding this feeling and these details. There are, in fact, many ways to feel about ill-fitting tights, and the story, in a line, dispatches with all but one, which allows the story to move forward with a clear sense of purpose.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s write a description using “Davenports and Ottomans” by Stefanie Freele as a model:
- Decide what to describe. Johnson describes setting: a place. Freele mostly describes a person, though that description eventually brings in some details about place. It doesn’t really matter what you want to describe, only that it (place, person) should be connected to some feeling. That feeling may be vague, but it should be there. When you think about the place/person, you should feel excited or uneasy or something. In stories, neutral is almost never good. We want characters and places that are charged with emotion or sensation.
- Describe it with specific details. Eventually, you’ll want details that cohere into a whole that is larger than the parts, but, first, you just need to get some details onto the page. Be as specific as possible. Use the sort of nouns that have adjectives attached to them (“white tights…half-way down her thighs” or “bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills”). You’re giving the reader something to see, an image that may be familiar or surreal. Either way, it’s specific.
- Interpret the details. Try using the phrasing from either of Johnson’s sentences as models: “People seem…” or “which is what happens when…” Or, use Freele’s phrasing: “She (emotion verb) (things we just saw). The goal is to not only tell the readers what we just saw/read but also how to think about it.
- Revise the passage for coherence. Once you have a line of interpretation, you may find that some details fit better than others. So, cut the ones that don’t fit, add more that do fit, and tweak the interpretive line so that the entire passage makes as much sense as possible.