Some collected thoughts on the challenge of writing about beauty. I’m going to outline a few of the inherent problems, give you a couple examples, outline a few ways to overcome this particular challenge, also with examples, and explain why, regardless of whether or not you succeed, it’s still worth attempting. This is a revised and relaunched post as part of series on how to get more out of your top-performing articles.
The challenge of writing about beauty.
As I drove this morning, swerving like a happy idiot from puddle to puddle on the empty predawn streets of the rainy Phoenix Valley, I saw something so beautiful that it completely distracted me from using my car as a multi-ton supersoaker. Framed against the deep blue of darkened sky, smoky silhouettes of old wooden telephone poles stretched. . . and between them, the wires stung in lazy waves, as they always do. This morning, though, the water clinging to them was catching the blue light of the clouds and the stark white of the few headlights on the road, transforming them into miles undulating silver, soft in the way of moonlight on a foggy night.
It was beautiful. More than beautiful, it was beauty itself, caught in the act.
It was also a reflection on wet metal strung up along dead trees in a slightly grungy part of a big city. There’s always more than one truth in perception.
Beauty is, at least in my experience, extraordinarily difficult to write well about. It rarely arises from just one thing, or one place; it’s an effect of the resonance of multiple aspects, some internal, some external, of a moment or two in time. It’s the sound of the thunder or the loons, the curl in the fog or the sunlight piercing through one improbable hole in a bank of thick cloud. It’s the scent of the rain, or the dust of stampeding bison. It’s the softness of a kitten’s fur, or the cold coarse stone against your hands when the strength and surety of both together is the only thing between you and a long downward flight. The rumble of the waterfall that shakes the earth as the mist chills your skin and slowly soaks through your clothes and straight to your core. It’s tied up somewhere in that moment between panic that you’re pretty sure your little sister must have been kidnapped and the realization that she’s just made a unilateral decision to go find Mom and Dad in a busy Costco.
It washes through you and over you and pulls at pieces normally too small or quiet to notice, until they threaten to tear you away.
It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to convey in words, probably the reason they say a picture’s worth a thousand of them. And still, a picture’s nothing like the experience. Even sound and motion together on video can give you, perhaps, half the truth of it. It makes the idea of putting the experience into mere words daunting.
More complicated, still, it is a function of who we are. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and, truthfully, in the mood of the beholder, too. People primed to appreciate a moment of beauty are more likely to experience the full joy and wonder of it than they would be if, say, half their mind was focused on their phone.
In other words, it’s about setting the right stage as much as the subject and language we use as writers.
The challenge, pictured.
The primary challenge of writing about beauty is the emphemeral nature of beauty itself. It is not a sight, a scent, or a sound, it is a conflux of person, place, and time. It is a thing infinitely large, somehow fitting in a thing infinitely small. To illustrate this, I’m going to show a picture of the most beautiful moment of my life thus far. Are you ready?
The thing is, this picture of that moment isn’t even the prettiest picture I took that day. That’s because what I saw was only the tiniest piece of experience.
Driving along an empty highway in Western Nebraska with the windows open, I chased a storm southwest across the plains just outside the Badlands somewhere in the Oglala Grassland. I had to pull over when I reached the tree.
The wind blew, its warmth pushing back against the chilly autumn air, and with it came stray drops of rain from the distant thunderhead. The gentle tapping of those drops seemed to sync the clicking of my hot engine. The scent of rain, awakening the ongoing growth and decay of a solid carpet of life thousands of miles in area, and three feet thick, unbroken life on a scale impossible to behold without spaceflight, mingled somehow with the acrid sting of hot engine oil, rendering it a touch of living essence. Each drop hitting me raised gooseflesh as it slid down my skin. The old cottonwood stood as a solitary sentry, my only companion on this long stretch of empty road, a silhouette against the fleeing storm. The gnarled old loner waved and cracked in the wind, its yellowing leaves meeting each wet gust with a sound reminiscent of a dozen flags snapping in a strong wind, overriding the rustle of the dry grass.
The clouds were backlit by the setting sun, light streaking through in every shade of purple, blue, red, gold, the placement of each shifting from one moment to the next with shift of a thousand towers of wind shaped cloud–through it ran constant streamers of flickering lightning, a low rumble carried on the breeze with the scent of wet living earth. As the wet grass bent and swayed, it etched the outline of the waves of wind in reflected twilight and burning red, like ripples across a pool of fire and shadow.
This moment was five years ago, now, and it’s lodged in my mind so completely that I escape to it in moment of frustration, doubt, or pain, and a part of me physically aches for it each time. If I had no other grand experience, if every other moment of the thousands of miles I had driven to arrive at this random place at this arbitrary moment had been a complete loss, that moment would justify it all in my mind.
So how do we write about beauty, then?
The challenges inherent in describing a scene through our own voices are largely the result of how well and able we are to reach inside. They are a function of our command of the language, our craft, and our experience.
We react by putting people in the place we want to them to be in order to experience what we wish them to experience . . . in other words, the biggest concern is less the content than the framing of it. Framing is not a straightforward challenge, either, however. There are two basic strategies for this, and they depend a great deal on how the piece is being framed.
Writing about beauty through the eyes of another.
If you’re looking through the eyes of a character, either in first person or in third, the trick is to really experience it through their senses. You need to know your characters to pull this off. Your hawk-eyed ex-soldier with hearing damage from a near miss by a mortar shell doesn’t experience the world the same way as the myopic classical musician does. Background also makes a difference. A hardboiled PI isn’t going to focus on the same things as, say, a photographer. As a personal example, my background in organic chemistry necessitated learning what various solvents smelled like. So, you might smell a perfume or cleaning compound and think, “Oh, hmm, that smells a bit like licorice.” When I smell it, though, I think, “Oh, anisic aldehyde, how I’ve missed you!”
Another example, I was hiking with a friend (now girlfriend of 1.5 years!) who’s an ornithologist the other day, and while I heard, “Cheep. Cheep. Chirpety-chirp, cheep, cheep, cheep,” she heard, “Rock wren. Northern flicker. Two hummingbirds fighting.”
And here’s where you get to cheat: When you’re experiencing something through the character, you get to tell (or show, if you prefer) how it affects the character. Humans are hardwired to empathize, so as long as you’ve sucked them hard enough into the character, and they’re emotionally invested, they’re going to feel what the characters feel. And you get the satisfaction of subtly controlling the minds of everyone who reads your stories. Win-win.
In order for this to work, though, people need to be seeing the character as a person, in some respect, not just a voice. A good way to do that is lead in with a short scene that forces them to picture the person do something else, maybe laughing as they drive through puddles, whatever, because they’ll be right there, along for the ride. You’re in charge of the narrative, and you need to use your leadership position to control the path of the reader’s thoughts. In order to be good at this, of course, you have to practice a great deal of empathy. . . I guess that’s only fair.
I’ll let Community’s Joel McHale explain it better than I can–really you only need to listen to the first minute, but, hey, enjoy it all. Treat yourself.
What about when you’re not describing the scene via characters?
Well, this is a bit trickier. The answer is, just like above, basically hacking people’s brains–but this time we’re going to do it differently, and it requires a little bit more balance.
A Brief Exercise:
Imagine a balloon.
Got it? Good. Now let’s move on just a little. . .
Imagine a red balloon.
(but you already did, didn’t you?)
Imagine a big red balloon.
Imagine a big red balloon in the hand of a child.
Imagine a big red balloon in the hand of running child.
And so on. If you look at this analytically, you’ll notice a few things. Your brain doesn’t need much to create a picture, and with very little to work with, it will happily fill in the gaps. There are also certain patterns among people which are not always followed, but generally most people fall into. Most people are going to imagine a red balloon if you don’t specify a color. Not everyone, but most of them. Most of you probably also imagined a little girl when I said child. She was probably wearing a dress instead of, say, overalls. You might not have, but you probably did. So part of this is just recognizing and taking patterns into account.
Moving past patterns, however, think about whether you imagined a person holding that balloon before I asked you to? Did you need me to specify when I said “in the hand” that I meant it was being held via a string? Do you need to be told how the balloon bobs and weaves along behind when you know the child is running? No. You know these sorts of things and your brain doesn’t need any prompting for the basics.
Instead, focus on using the minimum words necessary to create the image you need the reader to see. I didn’t bother to tell you my car was a beat up green Subaru with a heart of gold, because all you needed to know in that moment was that it was a car, you probably didn’t even work overly hard to define anything specific about it, you just plugged in the concept of car and ran with it. The trick, though, which makes a challenge of this, is that there is a minimum, and if you don’t meet it, you’ll lose people. The picture in your mind and theirs will diverge too far, and you’ll get to some point where something will happen, and they’ll realize they have no idea what’s going on.
Instead, as a writer, cut and sew the thing to shape, but let your readers take care of all the fluff; they’ll do it because they can’t help it. Use your page space to explain what is extraordinary about the moment, what makes it beautiful instead of shiny wires stretched over dead trees.
So you might write something along the lines of:
A child runs through the park, holding tight to a balloon, smile stretching from ear to ear. Who could help but to wish for that? To be so young again, and have the world floating lighter than air on string above us, the way it once did, back before it slowly lost its buoyancy and settled all of its crushing weight down on our shoulders? Or do we just grow taller until our shoulders press against it? Either way, soon enough–too soon–the little beaming child will take their place beside us all, and shoulder their share of the burden. For now, though, they run, and they smile, sparing no thought for what happens above their heads, which, after all, the reason we carry the weight. A child runs through the park, holding tight to a balloon, smile stretching from ear to ear, and the whole world seems a little less of a burden.
Why we do it this way.
If I were to try to describe every little thing about the scene, it could stretch for pages, and it would detract from what we want to describe in the process. People don’t need to be told that water is wet. On top of that, if you leave the child basically blank, people are going to picture their ideal child, or their own kid, or favorite cousin, niece, nephew, or something of the sort. All of which they’ll empathize with more than whatever specifics you come up with. This is something that is applicable to far more than just this one situation.
The downside to this, especially for other writers, but for clever readers in general, is that we tend to understand this is happening, and so pick up on details which are apparently insignificant, and yet would not be there at all were they not secretly significant . . . it ruins a lot of surprise endings. So remember to throw a few red herrings and unnecessary bits of description in now and then.
Remember, Beauty is Framing.
I went to the Phoenix Artwalk in May, mostly to visit my awesome friend Aubree, who makes and sells jewelry (you can find an interview I did of her here, and her site here) but one thing I saw there sort of stuck out for me.
In one both, out on the road, there were paintings hanging up. Nothing special there–they weren’t great paintings, and they weren’t bad paintings (which actually made them pretty good by PAW standards). What was rather extraordinary was that the painter, who was working on more paintings, live, was quadriplegic. They were holding the brushes in their mouth, and carefully painting that way.
That really struck me a moment of considerable human triumph. Each painting suddenly became more beautiful, because my perspective shifted. This wasn’t a landscape, this was physical representation of someone who got dealt a terrible hand, and just kept going. A reminder that people don’t give up.
Even the attempt is worthy.
It is never true to say there are no words . . . but there are times when words are woefully limited. They are our clumsy way of describing our personal experience to those around them, but there is beauty in even the act of writing: even knowing the limits, we pour our time and our effort into the hope that our words will build a moment of perfect understanding between ourselves and people we may never know or meet. Every piece of writing, good or bad, good or evil, is an attempt to bridge a gap that is, by its very nature, too wide. That is among truest beauty I have ever known.
How do you overcome the challenge of writing about beauty? Feel free to share them in the comment section.