A LESSON FROM MY BLUEBERRIES
With just one more day of summer left, I decided to walk to the nearby gardening shop, a distance of about 50 blocks round trip. The day was cool and dry but the forecast was for rain, so I left home at 9 in the morning. I had a question I wanted to ask the resident guru about my blueberries which produced nothing this year and to discover why the leaves of the plants were a yellow green. There were no customers in the shop when I arrived so I had the resident guru to myself. He told me I was over watering the berries and the drainage was leaching the iron out of the soil. This surprised me, as I’d had a problem of a different nature two years ago and a different guru told me I was under watering the blueberries. I was so convinced by her opinion, I paid a landscaper to add more drip lines around them so there would be no fear of seeing them wither from drought. Had I gone too far in the other direction? I guess I won’t know till next year when I cut down on the watering.
Life is a balancing act no matter what we’re about. It’s as true for writing as it is for blueberries. I continue to read the Doctorow book, “The Waterworks” (blog 9/16/2010) and find, as I suspected, the plot is warming up. I’m 200 pages into the book and am glad I stuck with it. My point being that as I continued to read, I couldn’t help noting how different Doctorow’s style was from mine. Actually, the comparison is ridiculous because Doctorow is a recognized master of his craft and I am…? Well, I’ll let others fill in the blank. What I want to say is that his style is ornate. He’s a wonderful author and I enjoy his diversions — a detailed description of a room, a recollection by character that doesn’t move the plot along but adds depth to the story — and I’m happy to follow where he leads. But to be honest, if I were the writer, I’d have said less, not because I don’t have the words, but because I have this notion that too much ornamentation intrudes upon my reader’s imagination. He has a right to bring his own picture to the pages.
When I was writing my first novel, “Gothic Spring,” I gave my central character, a girl of 16, little physical description. My editor said I needed to fill in the picture, so I did, but not by much. We’ve all had the experience of hearing people on the radio and forming mental images of them. How surprised we are when we see their pictures, at last. “I didn’t realize he was bald.” Or we read some actress will be playing the part of a well-loved fictional character and wrinkle our noses. ‘No, she’s not Becky Sharpe (Vanity Fair). Becky Sharpe looks much different.”
One of the most famous and beautiful women in history or fiction is Helen of Troy; yet there is no detailed description of her in the “Iliad.“ What convinces us she is beautiful is Homer’s account of her affect upon old men when she passes. He writes she made them wish they were young again. What a powerful depiction, more powerful than saying she had sky blue eyes and cherry lips.
So, the question I ask is how much or how little description should a writer provide his reader. Too little and like my blueberries, the reader feels deprived. Too much and he is likely to drown. The answer to the question will vary from writer to writer, but the good ones give us just enough.