If you watched the news over the weekend, you know the snowstorm that pounded the Mid-Atlantic (one of the top ten storms on record) brought the area to a standstill. Airports and a portion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike were closed and ground-based mass transit severely curtailed. Car accidents and medical emergencies added to the burdens of emergency workers. Babies were born and people died, many of them from shoveling snow. On the other hand, contrary to expectations, only a limited number of people lost power, and power was soon restored.
Three days later, much of the East Coast is still recovering: people with shore houses are cleaning up after the coastal flooding, side streets in cities are finally seeing plows, people are digging out their cars, and many schools are still closed. There’s no debating that powerful snowstorms cause massive problems.
For these reasons and more, a lot of people hate snow. I, however, am not one of them.
Despite the problems and inconvenience, when snow begins to fall, I become a child again.
As you’ve probably noticed, children, who live fully in the present, view snowstorms from a different perspective. The first flakes infect them with wonder, joy, and excitement. Snow creates a fantasy world, arouses creativity, and offers marvelous opportunities for building snow figures, constructing snowballs and snow forts, and making snow angels. A snowy world is a world full of possibilities, fun, and enchantment.
Children also experience snow in a different way. Everything is fascinating to a child and must be explored in all possible ways, and with all the senses. Unlike adults, who rely mainly on the sense of sight, children listen and smell and touch and feel. And what child has not tasted a handful of snow?
Last Friday night, when the gently falling snow had covered the ground, I took a walk outside. I love walking in a new snowfall, especially at night, and opening up all my senses to take in the entire experience. Ordinary objects take on a distinctive beauty as snowflakes, like bits of icy down, fashion a white coat that conceals dross with magic and casts a unique light to brighten the darkness. Sound changes also. Traffic noise from the highway a mile away becomes muted. The whole world seems hushed and yet the quiet swish of the falling snow is clear and distinct. The air smells fresh and clean. Snowflakes splash exposed skin with chill wetness and taste like icy treats on the tongue.
A walk in the falling snow invigorates and inspires, gets the creative juices flowing and the thought processes clicking. Any walk can do this, but a walk in the snow is special.
But walks end, weekends pass, and life goes on. As Sunday became Monday, my thoughts turned to this week’s blog post. I hadn’t come up with a topic, and time was ticking away. This is not an unusual situation for me, though, and when I let my thoughts percolate, ideas invariably bubble up. (Not all of them worth pursuing, of course!)
The experience in the snow … the books I’m reading (a Katherine Kurtz fantasy and a David Weber science fiction adventure) … the scheduled meeting of my critique group (now postponed) …
After circling around like a flock of migrating birds at dusk, my thoughts finally settled on setting and description. If nothing else, a snowy landscape provides a setting where all kinds of things can happen.
As a reader, I need to picture the characters in a specific setting. In the novels I’m reading, Katherine Kurtz and David Weber have both created fictional worlds which are so believable, so fully realized, that I’m sure they exist out there somewhere. These two authors know their worlds thoroughly and intersperse just enough description throughout the narrative for the reader to visualize them as well.
Including the optimal amount of description and specific details to provide a strong sense of place takes skill. Too much description can be tedious and lose a reader’s attention. Too little can make the story seem unreal and incomplete.
Finding the balance between too much and too little is a skill that successful writers have to cultivate. When editing or critiquing, I sometimes run across scenes that give so little setting that I feel like the action or conversation is occurring in a white, formless world, or like the characters are actors performing in front of a green screen. This is understandable in a first draft, but needs to be corrected int revision.
I’ve advised writers who have a problem with creating a realistic place to visualize their setting in detail. Diagramming a place can also help a writer physically see, for instance, where furniture is located. A limited number of key details (which must include items that will play an important part later in the story) should be incorporated in the manuscript, enough to make the place distinct and real without going overboard. And wherever possible, these details should encompass more than just the sense of sight.
But just what key details should a writer include?
Although I can recognize when the description is too sparse or overdone, I haven’t managed to give writers much guidance in how to choose appropriate key details. That’s a source of frustration for a teacher. Now, however, reflecting on my walk in the snow has provided inspiration and sparked an idea, or at least a place to start.
Perhaps writers have difficulty visualizing their settings and picking out key details because they’ve lost the childlike habit of noticing all the details, small and large, of their surroundings. Perhaps what we writers need to do is stop being preoccupied with the past and the future and practice living fully in the moment, practice being consciously aware of all the sights, sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, and tastes around us. We can’t write what we don’t perceive.
We don’t have to wait for a snowfall to immerse ourselves in the present moment. As I proofread this post, I’m peripherally aware of the steady flow of the air from the floor vents, the quiet ticking of the wall clock, the chill in the air as the sun descends.
We can all learn to have mindful awareness at least part of the time. Focusing on the present moment is a good way to occupy time while driving or waiting in a doctor’s office or standing in a checkout line at the store. Try it. Concentrate on your surroundings. Don’t let thoughts of anything else intrude; brush them aside. Observe everything: cars, people, buildings, furniture; the colors and color schemes, the cleanliness or dirtiness, the items that have been repaired or need repairs. Use not just sight but all the senses you can. What do you hear, smell, feel, and taste? Immerse yourself in the experience. Then pick out three or four specific details – not just sights, if possible – that epitomize the place.
Try keeping a writing journal. When you get home, write a description that includes only the key details of the settings you’ve observed. Do this as often as you can to acquire the knack of creating fully realized, believable settings. And maybe you can use one of those setting descriptions in a future manuscript. You never know.
You don’t have to be a writer to benefit from concentrating on or living in the present moment. Not only can the practice of mindfulness keep boredom at bay, but it has been shown to improve mental and physical health as well. Who can argue with that?
Do you love snow or hate it? Do you keep a writing journal? Have you practiced mindfulness?