Writing is a visual art, so said Natalie Goldberg at the retreat I attended with her in Santa Fe. Like a painter, a writer must create a visual image for the reader. Your pen is your paintbrush.
The images you paint with words are landscapes, descriptions of the place where you or your characters reside. A description by Terry Tempest Williams of a night spent in jail in her memoir When Women Were Birds:
Three sets of doors open and close behind me, then lock shut. I enter the women's pod, where twelve prisoners like myself are dressed in orange. It is a crowded room, with seven metal bunk beds; a toilet, sink, and shower; and four bolted-down tables with attached chairs that swing out from under them. The walls are cinder blocks painted white, with no windows, only florescent lights. The floor is covered with shiny linoleum squares.
Or the images you paint with words are portraits of people in your story. Some short, bare-bones descriptions, like rudimentary charcoal sketches, from Mary McCarthy's The Group:
The tall shaggy man who was in radio told several funny stories about Jersey Lightning; he warned the handsome young man in the knitted green necktie that this stuff (Apple Jack) packed an awful wallop.
Portraits can also be detailed, brought to life in rich watercolor. Also from The Group:
She was a short, sandy-haired girl with an appealing snub nose and an air of being study though she was really thin and slight. She very much resembled her father, a short, sandy Scot who had made a pile of money in steel through knowing about alloys; he had been born in a little town called Iron Mountain, Michigan. Helena was regarded as a droll member of the group, having a puckish sense of humor, a slow, drawling way of talking, and a habit of walking around nude that had startled the others at first. Her figure was almost undeveloped, and when you saw her from a distance, hiking down a corridor to the shower with a towel around your neck, you might have thought she was a freckled little boy on his way to a swimming hole in the woods somewhere; her legs were slightly bowed, and her little patch of hair down there was a bright pinky red...(The description/portrait of Helena continues for several pages.)
The level of detail to incorporate in your portraits depends on the context. When describing the main character in a novel, like McCarthy's Helena, you have the need and the space to expand. For a passerby in a personal essay, however, you might keep the description to half a sentence.
Over the past couple weeks, I've sat in public places "sketching" people I see. What I've learned:
When sketching someone in words begin with whatever characteristic strikes you first. Is it their eyes, their stride, the sound of their voice? Begin there and let the rest follow. This is where the energy lies. It will make your description buzz with authenticity. This principle is reminiscent of Goldberg's writing rule of first thoughts. Write whatever first comes to mind, no matter if it's bizarre or impolite.
A couple of my sketches:
Her walk is more like a hobble. Her body teeters with each step, right then left, like a broken seesaw in need of repair.
I drifted from consciousness to the gaze of my sincere-eyed, freckled anesthesiologist.
A petite woman pushes a stroller with a toddler on the sidewalk. Something about the picture before me feels off. Her styled hair is yellow blond, face two shades lighter than her complexion from a thick layer of foundation. Her lips are painted bold red. She's wearing black jeans with a rip at the knee, heeled brown leather shoes and carries a stylish, small, black leather backpack. Another woman emerges from the corner and I then understand. She's wearing a black baby carrier strapped to her wide body, an infant asleep inside. Her eyes are baggy, her walk slow. She wears a purple t-shirt, jeans that slouch in the back, and Birkenstock sandals. The first woman is a friend or sister-in-law.
I find it helpful to break down the elements of a written portrait into categories. Here's what I mean: I'm building a list of these categories with examples as a writing resource. Thought I'd share:
freckled (heavily, sprinkle of freckles)
Hair - Color
Hair - Texture/Volume/Shape
receding hair line
Mouth - lips
Mouth - smile
Mouth - teeth
Of course, you'll want to come up with descriptions of people that are entirely original, words you can't neatly categorize in this list. But having some basics down as a reference is something I'm toying around with.
Try out public sketching. A warning: it's addictive!
A final note: many thanks to Bend-based artist Sheila Dunn for granting me permission to use an image of one of her portraits, I Leave You Here, in this article.