A Writer’s Notebook: Description (from high school!)

This is a bit embarrassing, but what the hell — the essence of exercises is to attempt to write, and sometimes the results can be ugly. Besides, I have the defense that I wrote this almost twenty years ago, when I was just some high school kid who didn’t know anything about anything.

I awoke in the temple with a feeling of inferiority and a sense of awe that belittled me and everything in my sight save the rocks.  I glanced around at the sepulchral walls and shivered in awesome wonder.  Soft wet shifts of dirt came from below, as though the sweaty earth was morphing under the great weight of the stones.  Brief rays of delicate light dripped through the dark sheet of clouds overhead.  The cold that radiated, just out of reach, from the stones, the soil, and the sky drew me away from myself and into the world of the necromantic druids.  I rose from my resting place and began to circumnavigate the mystic Stonehenge.

I glided past the fallen behemoths while the spirits of the long-dead worshipers of some ancient god cried for me to join them as they rode the breeze.  Sweetly rotten scents of decay were carried to me in a gentle breath and then were gone, following the paths of their vagabond souls.  The stones glistened with the soft sheen of post-storm silence, and they watched over me in solemn supremacy.  Subtle grays surrounded me in claustrophobic circumspection, alienating me.  Gargantuan towers of weatherworn bluestone loomed over me, and shadows crawled over their surfaces like living pits of abysmal depths.  Tiny spheres of water, reminiscent of their raindrop cousins, crept down the time-soothed sides of organic iron and were lost in the vacuum of the lightless shadows.  I followed them into the infinity and lost myself as well.  I fell to the ground.

The moisture of dark rains and the translucent histories was soaked into the soil so that it gave way at my impact.  Thin whisps of steam rose around me as the morning warmed the blue-white frost covering the earth.  My back became scratched and gritty and my fingers grew numb.  I was being enveloped by the frigidity of the ground and the malleability of the loam I lay in.  My mind began to slip into the moist and musky sands of time.  Then the thunder cracked and my attention was drawn from threatening unconsciousness to the sky above me.

The swirls of deep purple, mauve and sunlit lavender I had awakened to had condensed into a huge writhing mass of blue-black, slate, and obsidian.  Dark lightning exploded within the clouds, backlighting the massive cauliflower thunderheads in the foreground while illuminating the gloomy, lumbering giants of the upper atmosphere.  Shrill, icy cold shot into my face and I jumped to my feet just as the storm began its tantrum.  Glowing raindrops fell to the ancient dirt beneath me and crashed into the stolid, impervious stones as the heavens were torn to flailing rags by the harsh winds and freezing rains and fiery flashes of tainted light.

I hastily started toward home, looking back only once to the shrine.  That was the last time I saw the living soil that glowed greenish brown and the stoic rocks that exuded the deep regal purple and grey of ageless majesty as they sat and proved immortal in the face of the savage sky above Stonehenge.

So, that was pretty awful. Some fun attempts at color description, maybe, especially considering I’m color blind, but really pretty cheesy overall.

There are a couple of interesting things to note here, though: First, this is just a simple description exercise. My high school English teacher (I forget which grade) showed us an image of Stonehenge (I think it was a watercolor painting) and told us to describe it as vividly as we could. A classic beginning exercise, used almost like a stretch and warm-up before a workout, just something to limber up our powers of observation and get the vocabulary flowing. But what’s interesting is that I couldn’t help but try and turn this simply descriptive exercise into a story. It’s a bad story badly written (can you tell I was reading a lot of Lovecraft at the time? I still enjoy Lovecraft, but bad Lovecraft pastiche is some of the worst writing you can do), but it’s still an attempt at story. I felt the narrative was somehow part of the descriptive process, that I couldn’t see the image without also seeing a story.

The other thing that’s interesting about this is that I still have it. I’m a notorious pack rat, especially when it comes to drafts and revisions of my work. I actually have whole file cabinet drawers full of single stories, several dozen drafts of the same idea and/or a couple dozen copies of the same draft with workshop comments scribbled on them, even sometimes the original handwritten notebook pages or backs of receipts with lines of dialogue I never even used. One of my graduate professors finally instilled in me the ability to let go of the work and toss out old drafts and notes and cheap ideas that are just never going to work, but I still take my time doing it and I still manage to hold onto a LOT of paper.

I’m even worse about computer files, which take up lots of disk space but no physical space and so are easier to cling to. But what makes this short exercise noteworthy are that it was only ever an exercise, with no hope of becoming something more; and that I converted it from the handwritten classroom draft to a typed computer file back in the days when I was still writing on a black-and-yellow monochrome monitor and storing files on 5-inch floppies. It’s amazing this file still exists, uncorrupted and readable, after migrating across at least a half-dozen personal computers, from the 5-inch floppy to a 3.5-inch floppy to a ZIP drive (remember those?) to a flash drive to a portable external hard drive….

And now here it is, stored on the Internet, because it was one of the earliest creative writing exercises I did, and because for some reason, I think that — not the writing itself, but the act of attempting to write — is worth preserving.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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