Sunday, May 19, 2013

More observation: Drafting a descriptive paragraph

Nature writing has a long, proud tradition in America. Think Lewis and Clark, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Annie Dillard, among others. I thought we'd give it a little try. My hope is to send a finished piece to friends and family, and possibly to a nature writing website. As for purpose, there's no practical purpose beyond entertaining the audience and getting outside to observe and write. But that seems to be enough, at least for now.

Before writing
I wrote a model of a descriptive paragraph about our backyard. There are lots of great models out there in books and magazines (ooh, a travel mag piece would be fun), but I wanted to keep the ideal within reach--too beautiful or complex and my writer would be intimidated.

Under the paragraph, I drew five lines, one for each sense (sight, hearing, touch, smell--I skipped taste) and one for "thoughts". Tai read the paragraph and underlined sentences in the different colors. I said a sentence about how these kinds of details can put a reader in a place, so to speak, and in the writer's mind. 

We went up the hill to one of the community entrances to Rancho San Antonio (we are so lucky to live close to a place like this) and walked up to the water tower, which sits in a flat, cleared area that overlooks the Silicon Valley. You can see right across the bay to the hills on the other side.

Practice your observation skills, I said. Use your senses. Close your eyes to listen and smell. Look for colors and textures. See how many detailed observations you can make, and instead of writing them in a list, try a paragraph.

Tai had a minor meltdown because he is so awkward with pencil and paper. "Why didn't we bring the computer? Can't I just text on your phone?" I dunno--this felt like an excuse to me, so I just insisted he write, and after about five sentences he quit in frustration. So maybe the laptop next time.

He actually came up with some lovely observations.  I had been planning to talk about simile and metaphor during a revision session later, but he seems to have a knack for it already:

"Stanford Tower sticks into the air like a pencil."

We also just "brainstormed" sensory details: I asked what he saw/heard/smelled, etc. and wrote down what he said--we'll use these later when he revises.

Once you have some sensory details are down, try a couple of sentence starters:
I wonder. . .
I wish. . .
I think. . .

Et voila. You have the first draft of a lovely observation paragraph.

Next steps:
We'll visit this spot again, at night/evening and in the early morning, and do the same exercise.
Then comes revision and editing.
The goal is three pieces about the same place at different times of day--kind of like Monet's haystacks--and a little truth at the end. Hopefully.

  • Bring a laptop for kids who have trouble handwriting.
  • If the observe-and-write step seems overwhelming, remember Anne LaMott's advice about taking it bird by bird. Remember the practice we did with the pictures. Just pick one subject after another. 
  • If you possibly can, go to a place "in nature" when it's relatively quiet and unpeopled. I find that it's calming and helps focus your observations--trying to describe people in place is a whole 'nother thing, I think. 

No comments:

Post a Comment