A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Wow, What A Stunning View!

Wonderful. Marvellous. Jaw-dropping. Spectacular. Stunning. Stupendous. Ravishing. Riveting. Spellbinding. Terrific. Fascinating. Interesting. Impressive. Astonishing. Unbelievable. Pretty. Picturesque.

Yes, we all use them more than we should, those meaningless holiday brochure adjectives, to describe views, landscape, scenery. When faced with extraordinary beauty (see, I'm at it again) we lazily and automatically reach for this well-worn stock of clichés.

I suppose we can be excused to some degree. After all, most of us aren't professional writers, are we? However, if we take a little time, and struggle a little bit harder to find a more exact, a more resonant, a more truthful and honest word, in an attempt to describe the 'indescribable', then the rewards and satisfaction gained can be great.

One reason I love the Camino pilgrimage routes so much is that they take you from A to B without any prime consideration for the difficulty or easiness of the route, its possible scenic wonders, its 'ooh, aah, what a gorgeous view' potential. Sure, there can be gorgeous views, and some incredible scenery (at it again, I'm afraid), but there are also some fairly nondescript town suburbs, examples of fascist graffiti, mouldering rubbish dumps, motorways, and long, straight, frankly boring stretches of path. It's certainly not all sylvan glades and National Parks. You have to take the rough with the smooth, the fresh with the jaded, the pristine with the polluted, the gilded with the povery-stricken - just as you have to be phlegmatic about the weather, which can be baking hot or freezing cold or anything in-between. I like this totality of experience.

The Camino gets you purposively to your physical and spiritual destination, pure and simple. That's what it's there for. That's how it's evolved over the centuries. That's why it's been walked time and time over, worn deep by the feet of countless pilgrims. It's tried and it's tested. It's not just a path through paradise landscapes and a connecting link between tourist sites and ancient monuments. It's a practical, spiritual route, not primarily a showcase of natural wonders or a museum of fossilized relics. Though there are many wonders and relics along the Way...

But back to those old, familiar adjectives. My New Year's resolution is to try and think a little longer, to focus a little more clearly before I use these comforting clichés. To look for the right word, the exact and telling word. To tell it how it is. Just as the Camino tells it how it is. Just as the Camino takes you through the harsh, bright realities of life, its hardships and its pleasures, its penitence and its glory...


Rebecca said...

Isnt that so true.

I was searching for words to describe what I had seen each day and all the words that came to mind seemed rather lame and not do justice to how I had felt and what I had experienced as I stood surrounded by the sights (the lovely, the mundane, and the ugly).

Perhaps that is why I resort to photography in the hope that I can capture, and convey what I had seen, and felt.

Maybe, with the combination of words and pictures, I can express myself better.

"Communicating" with another is not so difficult, but conveying what one had felt or experienced is not at all easy.

Buen Camino, SW, and I hope to read about your 'indescribable' experinces as you make your journey.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Good adjectives are keys to good, descriptive writing, for sure. And they aren't easy to come by sometimes. Which, I suppose, is why the tried, true, and tired ones get used so often. I'm as guilty as anyone, BTW.

The problem is, there's a fine line between finding that one perfect adjective you rarely see/hear, and an adjective that's so odd or archaic that your writing seems amateurish, affected, laughably ornate.

Sometimes, too, the familiar cliché is still the best word. Clichés get to be clichés because they're useful words; they don't stop being useful—and appropriate—because they're clichés.

In the end, for me it often simply comes down to time (which sometimes translates to money) and whether I want craft each and every sentence I commit to paper to the best of my creative talent and editorial abilities, or whether I'll settle for simply getting certain bits of basic, communicative writing done and then moving on.

One of the marks of good writing, I think, is that a piece doesn't necessarily draw attention to itself as being "well written." Instead, it simply leaves the reader feeling and seeing whatever it was you were writing about, "knowing" the experience as if were their own. It's akin to good special effects in a movie…the best ones are so real you can't tell they're not. It's only when you go back and read for construction rather than content that you realize how well done the piece was.

That said, good writing ought to then carry the personality and "voice" of the writer, a certain style. You can't make up a style, though you can imitate the style of other writers. But sooner or later, if you write a lot, you find a voice or style of your own. It's like becoming an accomplished musician…you begin by learning to play the instrument; then you start learning to play like musicians you admire; finally, you take bits of this and that, throw the rest away, and play like yourself—and as you progress from that point onward, you develop, codify, and master your own unique style/voice.

In a way, your description of Camino roads is a description of clichés—worn, tested by time, familiar to all, a direct route from point A to point B…and still capable of doing their job. When the lady of your life steps into the room all dressed up and ready to go out, and says, "How do I look?"—you might want to take the time to cast about for that perfect adjective…or you might just tell her she's lovely, beautiful, delicious, gorgeous, stunning (pick your cliché), say and mean it with all your heart, and thereupon find a thesaurus unnecessary.

[BTW, none of this is meant to discourage you from implementing your resolution—although you write really well already. Just playing a bit of devil's advocate. I wear out the same dozen or so adjectives every week and have to keep reordering replacement copies.]

The Weaver of Grass said...

Here's wishing you all a very happy new year Robert.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for all these comments...

Grizzled, that was a tour-de-force of a comment! Thanks so much for taking the time and trouble (hell, another cliché!)

I agree with pretty much all you say. And what you say, you say so well - as always. Clichés (a loose term, isn't it - when does a familiar, much-loved expression become the rather more derogatory 'cliché'?) are the very coin and foundation of our everyday language. Without them we'd have no conversation, no magazines, no newspapers, no genre fiction - and no blogs! (No love life either - as per your example!) They are the oil which lubricates our day to day discourse (yuk, sounds vaguely unpleasant, that!)

I think my post here was meant as aspirational - I really do want to improve my writing... Often, I find, the best descriptions arise out of what is left out rather than all the details that are crammed in. And from recounting what is actually there in front of us (surprisingly much more difficult than we might think) - in concrete terms, in metaphorical terms, howsoever - as accurately as possible, rather than resorting to bland stop-gap adjectives such as 'wonderful', 'marvellous' etc.

Thanks again for such great comments, Rebecca and Grizzled. Happy New Year to you both - and to you, too, Weaver.

Tramp said...

Together with the previous piece very thought-provoking. Is it possible for a writer to exactly recreate their experience for me, the humble reader? I don’t think so, any more than I can exactly recreate the moving experience I had of last week’s sunset here. Part of what I experienced was brought on by my state of mind at the time.
What I personally get from reading other people’s descriptions of their interpretations of the nature that they experience is inspiration for me to look at nature and interpret it in my own way.

Was it Alice through the looking glass or in Wonderland who coined “when I use a word it means what I want it to mean”? For people whose first language is not English the difference between intended meaning and understood meaning can be more problematic. Part of my life is spent teaching English here in the Czech Republic (would it be more romantic to say Bohemia?). In English Czechs will often use the word “nature” in the sense of the word in Czech, which as well as the system of things can also be a place you can visit. “Last weekend I went to the nature” is a sentence I often hear or read and I am quick to point out to the offender that this as a misuse of the word. After reading the piece you included from Thoreau, perhaps I should broaden my understanding of the word.

Thanks for making me think. Happy New Year and get out there and visit Nature and tell him/her/it that I sent you.

Hope this comment arrives. Ihave tried to send it earlier but I'm new to driving this thing.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks very much for your long comment, Tramp. No, experiences can never be truly recreated by writing, poetry, art, anecdotes, blogs etc. What these activities do is create a 'new' experience inspired by the 'old' one, or, to put it another way, a metaphor for the 'old' experience!

I'll pass on your remarks to Nature on my next visit.