When Distraction is a Good Thing

Kate Flora here, on January 2nd, so happily back at my desk with no crowds to cook for, no shopping to do, no beds to change and no sheets to wash. I love my family and all the rituals of the season–anyone who has followed my postings on Facebook knows that it has been a litany of recipes and food choices–but I also love turning the corner into a new year and immersing myself back in my work.

So why am I writing about distraction?

It’s like this. The week before Christmas, I stopped in to return some books to the library. As is my habit, I scanned the shelf where the library friends have books for sale. If you saw my house, you’d know that I need more books like a moose needs a hatrack, but the book buying habit is hard to break.  I came home with a book called Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan, about how to write more descriptively.

And here is where distraction comes into play. When I am writing, I tend to be mono focused. I sit in my chair and I write until I tumble off, or until my fingers cramp and my back aches. Or I write until my eyes cross or my husband says it really is time to stop. Or until I’m so hungry I would eat stale bread. Then I go and make dinner, and then go upstairs to read. But when I’m reading about writing more descriptively, I usually only get a page or two into the book (or less) before my mind starts ticking over. McClanahan writes:

Description doesn’t begin on the page. It begins in the eye and ear and mouth and nose and hand of the beholder.

And I have to put the book down. Stare into space as the scene I’m writing in And Grant You Peace, my fourth Joe Burgess, begins to take shape, and I see how I could make it richer and more vivid. How maybe I’m skipping steps and you, my reader, aren’t going to feel the world around Burgess the way he does. I remember that I’m writing about spring, and what is it about early spring nights in Maine that makes them special? What is that we all are attuned to and welcome after a long, cold winter?

I’ve only read a few pages of the book, but I’m distracted. I’m hearing the sound of peepers on a quiet spring night. I’m seeing how the salt marsh changes color. I’m thinking about the smell of warming earth, about what might be in the air on the first spring day when it’s warm enough to have the car window open. The way the earliest emerging leaves on the trees look almost fuzzy. The way that the tips of some trees and bushes start turning red. I thinking about Burgess’s relationship with his mother, and how she taught him to notice the world around him.

I’m grabbing my Rodale’s Synonym Finder, an indispensable book that was a gift from my mother, and looking for all the words for green. I’m going back to photographs I took last spring, seeing what they might show me about the world being reborn.

I start thinking about Burgess have to attend an autopsy, and what it will feel like in that room. I am worried about your tender sensibilities, and McClanahan reminds me:

Description is not a way to hide from the truth. The world isn’t always pretty; and describing our world honestly sometimes requires facing difficult, even ugly subjects.

She reminds me that part of description is what’s going on inside, as well as outside the characters. How the hard surfaces and shiny metal instruments and the table are ways to keep the process from being emotional. There is no softness there. It is clinical, and brutal, and it is also sad. That sadness must come from describing what the characters are seeing, and how they feel about that.

I go upstairs and pick up another book, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s One Was a Soldier.

It reminds me that Burgess was a solider. That he’s seen hard things. That Burgess cares deeply about children, and crimes against children. And I am back in the autopsy room again, wondering what he is feeling, and I realize that it is anger. He is angry at the necessity for what he is seeing, because someone has refused to be responsible for the comfort and safety of a helpless child.

This is how it is going to be, until I type: The End. Seeing things differently, getting a sudden insight. Driving around with the story playing in my head. Putting down books I want to read because the author has given me an idea I can use in my own work. I am going to be distracted.

And yes. It is a good thing.


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6 Responses to When Distraction is a Good Thing

  1. Thank you for these reminders, Kate. I think you are a master at the right kind of description, at bringing us into Burgess’s world, into Maine. Can’t wait to read the next one!

  2. John Clark says:

    Excellent column. When we utilize our eyes to really see and our ears to really hear, we enter a world that exists, but seems invisible to almost everyone these days because they’re locked inside their own set of worries. Yesterday was quite an adventure in letting my mind tag along behind other peoples desperate realities.

  3. Lil Gluckstern says:

    What a lovely post, full of insight about the endurance of life’s ups and downs, and yes, the mundane made beautiful by attending, the power of the moment. I am looking forward to the new Joe.

  4. Just the reminder I need as I knuckle down to get Darby 5 done. Thank you!

  5. sandra gardner says:

    thank you so much for sharing information about the book on descriptive writing. I’m going to buy it — and read it!
    Sandy Gardner

  6. MCWriTers says:

    Thanks, all. I don’t know how good this book is overall…because of getting distracted, but it sure has a great beginning. And it never hurts to be reminded about the importance of description.


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