I wrote my first novel when I was 19. I’ve still got it somewhere. It was called Henry. The main character knew he was a character and that he was living in a world created by my words.
I was very taken at that time by the idea that I was creating a world. I had the idea that my job was to define that world precisely, to provide a precise instruction manual. But I’ve come to think that descriptive writing doesn’t really function in that way. It doesn’t so much provide a precise instruction manual, as give the reader permission to pretend that what he or she is being presented with is not just words on the page, but a world. (It’s a bit like hypnotism, a ritual which gives people permission to pretend things are other than they really are). Having received that permission, the reader then constructs the world for him- or herself.
To give an example. Dickens often provides meticulous descriptions of his characters: the length of their sideburns, the shape of their nose, the number of hairs on the mole on their right cheek etc etc. But do we as readers meticulously visualise these characteristics, commit them to memory, and then continue to visualise them whenever the same character appears? I certainly don’t, not least because my memory just isn’t that good. No, I gain a general impression from the description, pick up from it a feeling, a gestalt, and construct from that my own rather vague mental image (which may well not fit exactly with Dickens’ instructions), and then work with it for the rest of the book.
Assuming my own way of reading is not that unusual, does this mean that Dickens’ meticulous details are pointless? Not at all. Their precision is what gives us permission to enter into the world. They convince us that the writer really is seeing the world in his mind, not just providing a list of words, and that in turn frees us to see it too. Our own perception of the visual world works in much the same way. We think we are seeing a complete scene, but in fact, if you analyse what your eyes are seeing moment to moment, it is only glimpses, mostly a blur, with a tiny point of focus darting erratically this way and that. (Can you describe precisely, without looking at it, the building four houses down from your home?)
Here is another example, the famous passage from Midsummer Night’s Dream:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
I love this. It’s one of my favourite bits of descriptive writing. It’s one of those bits that makes me wonder why I even try. And yet I am not sure what wild thyme looks like, I have no idea what eglantine is, and I only know that ‘woodbine’ is another name for honeysuckle because I have just this minute looked it up. The words evoke a lovely place, and do it vividly, but only because, magically, they give me permission to imagine it myself.