Describe It

There’s a certain fluffy creature, a white near-mammal, almost bear, somewhat human looking.  It is actually a large, stuffed bird. Its yellow eyes gleam above a feather-covered beak that follows the curve of its face. Wispy gaiters show little of the claws beneath. The wings, too, are covertly tucked in at its sides; if it could spread them out again, they would measure six feet from tip to tip. When young, before using those wings, the bear-bird was a little gray koala-colored ball, hopping along the Arctic tundra, seeming at any moment to lose its balance and go rolling down a hill.

snowy owl vertical

It took several weeks to get that paragraph the way I wanted it, to describe an object I thought represented Theodore Roosevelt’s bird collection (he stuffed and mounted it in 1876), which in turn represented his education.  You see above a photo my daughter took of the snowy owl in its glass case at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I’d studied it on other visits. But at the time she took this photograph I was sitting on a bench in Roosevelt Hall in the midst of a gazillion other visitors on Spring Break, my head tilted toward the ceiling, trying to stop a Niagra of a nosebleed (probably brought on by the depleted oxygen supply).

In my book, I tell why the arctic owls flew south that year, and that, “Theodore brought down a beautiful one…”  This statement made at least one person report to me that he winced while reading it.  I understand what he means.  But now, as the bird’s contemporaries are dust, a form of him stands for his species (and a boy naturalist) to the world.  I hope the sacrifice was not too great.

I didn’t get much chance to look at the beautiful bird of history that day.  The point is, it was in my mind to share, and  I did.   It’s still there in a public place for all to see, study, and think about.

As a new school year begins and students everywhere are being challenged again to become better writers, here are a few thoughts.  A description can work for you at the beginning, end, or other part of a story.  Among authors of children’s books, Laura Ingalls Wilder was good at descriptions because when she was young, she had to find the right words to tell her blind sister what things looked like.  So, show instead of tell, use figurative language or sensory words or onomatopoeia, and present specific numbers and details.  Give your piece the number of rewrites it deserves.  When you transfer an image to someone else’s mind, make it the best one you can.

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