When asked as a freshman in college for my favorite genre in literature, I callously would answer, “Non-fiction.” Finding fiction overly flowery, I preferred books bare in detail, that went straight to the action of what happened. Yet, description is also what happened; it’s things we can observe. Description, according to J. T. Bushnell, is not a litany of adjectives or abstractions--like the word glorious--that do not show us anything concrete.
J. T. Bushnell’s article in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers, “The Heart and the Eye: How Description Can Access Emotion”, invites us to aim right for the gut when we write. For, there is a neurophysical phenomenon in reading descriptive language. It “makes your feeling in THINGS”, Bushnell writes, quoting Richard Bausch. Words like “sandpaper”, “banana bread” and “rose” trigger responses beyond the language receptors of our brains and also land into processing areas devoted to smells and visual images (Bushnell, 2013).
Tragically, and true of my former self, “young readers often think of description as the parts that they can skip”, Jerome Stern writes in Making Shapely Fiction (Stern, 1991). My New York City junior high school experience of reading to the test effectively zapped any vestige of reading for enjoyment gleaned during elementary school. No judgement, but last year young adult, science-fiction changed everything.
Positioned precariously on the windowsill, which moonlighted as the free book section at my former college access job, sat Invitation to the Game by British writer Monica Hughes. Published in 1990 but set in 2150, Invitation to the Game is a dystopian story of massive and debilitating unemployment. Centered around the lives of a group of recent high school graduates, the only thing to look forward to is illicit drugs, squatting, crime and the allure in being chosen to participate in something called “The Game”--which is a vivid holographic simulation designed by the government secretly meant to train participants who worked well together in groups for living off Earth.
The description in the book is not particularly profound. What then drew me? The description was tactile. I could almost taste the alien air, smell the river’s coolness and touch the fear that is finding a new way to live. I stood shocked in my office at my delight. The language of the novel was at the level of a fifth grader at best. I stood fooled, flooded and perplexed by my sudden pleasure.
Bushnell’s article The Heart and the Eye: How Description Can Access Emotion, helped me a year later piece together the answer. The brain is divided into two regions: The reptilian brain, which is located also throughout one’s spine governing the body, and the neo-cortex. The reptilian brain is associated with emotional functions and based in quick, associative connections; while the neo-cortex governs computations. It reasons slowly and deliberately. Thus, while the higher region might be busy computing the meaning of a series of words, the lower region already constructs a narrative of what happened by the associations attached to those same series of words. Below is an example from Bushnell’s article to help illustrate:
"To say that a man’s hair is the color of fine cigars, or dung-colored, or grizzly-bear brown, for example, produces no real difference in hue [the meaning is brown for the higher brain], but it does produce vast difference in the associations it creates [in the lower brain]" (Bushnell, 2013). Italics mine
Dung-colored hair feels sticky, glossy and putrid brown in sensation as if one has not showered in days. Hair the color of cigars creates an image of dry brown hair, sophisticated and highlighted with a bit of gray. Bushnell shares that the lower brain can “outmuscle” rational functions in moments when our higher selves have fixed notions about what we believe or in what we are interested. This taking over is actually how we spend most of our lives 90% of the time--calculating crossing the street, breathing or carrying groceries. Our rational brain governs only 10% of what we call thinking.
If--albeit accidentally--not skipping over description while reading Invitation to the Game transformed a 27 year-old, non-fiction lover like me into one finishing novels over a late night, I encourage those skeptics of fiction to allow yourself to be shot through the heart.
Today's Art Exercise
While the exercises are geared toward literary artists, I will scour the earth for more inclusive exercises that span artistic genres. Remember to post your exercise to Twitter using #YourWrite.
Write a cinquain poem that uses a descriptive word associated with each of the five sense: taste, smell, vision, hear & feel.
The format of the cinquain is as follows:
Line 1: one word (subject or noun)
Line 2: two words (adjectives) that describe line 1
Line 3: three words (action verbs) that relate to line 1
Line 4: four words (feelings or a complete sentence) that relates to line 1
Line 5: one word (synonym of line 1 or a word that sums it up)
Living as Art is a play on a travel blog where I recount the various artistic-related events I attend & the circus that usually becomes of it.
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