Text Review

"This book exercised some type of hypnotical [sic] powers over my descriptive-starved [sic] brain"

review by Julienne van Loon


Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively
Rebecca McClanahan
Cincinatti, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1999
ISBN 1-58297-025-4
249 pages, Pb.RRP AU$32.95


Greg Dening, in his Readings/Writings describes the rare and ecstatic moments in reading when

I realise that what I am reading is just what I was about to say. It is a moment of jealousy and disappointment, as if the occasion had been stolen from me, but it is a moment of excitement too - because I think I would like to try and say it better, because now the monologue in my mind has become a dialogue. My immediate impulse is to write something, anything… (xix)

Is it possible to come across such a moment in a guidebook for writers? It should be, shouldn't it?

If, as Ross Chambers would have it, it is the agreement between reader and writer that determines the relevance of a text, then I have to confess to the relationship between myself and Rebecca McClanahan, mediated by Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, having gone awry. As I carry out the dual processes of reading and writing that are involved in putting together this review, I am conscious that I am not the ideal reader/writer for this particular guide. This is a shame, because I feel McClanahan's book, given what it manages to do within the predicament of its genre, probably deserves a good review.

Etymologically, the word 'guide' is related to the Old Provencal guida, of Germanic origin, and akin to the English wltan to look after, and witan, to know (Meriam Webster Online Dictionary). It is commonly accepted in Western culture that intellectual knowledge is easily translated into the form of a book. But how can a guidebook really look after its readers? The teacher who guides students in the classroom has the privilege of being able to carry out some quick investigations to find out where their students are coming from, and the students are 'looked after' accordingly. But the writer of a guidebook on writing has a double quandary. S/he has to intuit not only how much the reader already knows about reading and writing, but also what kind of thing it is that the reader has in mind to write. No wonder guidebooks for writers have such a woeful reputation. Their task is an impossible one.

McClanahan and I get off to a bad start when she frames her book using John Gardner's idea of the fictional dream without questioning what it might mean for a writer to want to reinforce such a dream. Gardner's fictional dream is basically about suspending disbelief and it reminds me how all-pervasive American realism has been and continues to be in contemporary film and fiction. Significantly, McClanahan is most well known as a writer of creative non-fiction and it makes me wonder what the connection is between contemporary realism (hysterical realism, as James Wood has called the worst of it) in fiction, and the rise of the creative non-fiction genre. McClanahan is not at all self-reflexive about the kind of writing she really has in mind for her reader, except to say that as a writer, she herself seeks to describe "the kind of dream a reader would willingly enter" (3). Perhaps I am being too academic here, given the presumably general readership Word Painting is aimed at, but McLanahan's transferal of Gardner's concept of the fictional dream verbatim, without ever critically unpacking for the reader what it might mean, rings warning bells for me.

McClanahan's book is, ultimately, a series of essays on descriptive work, with some suggested exercises at the end of each chapter. Patrick West, in reviewing Irina Dunn's The Writer's Guide (Allen and Unwin 2000) for an earlier edition of TEXT, laments that Dunn's 'guide' lacks the voice of a teacher, and McClanahan's book could not be faulted for the same. Her voice is direct and graceful and her presence in the text can seem intimate at times. Significantly, it was McClanahan's reputation as a teacher that drew me to her book. She has been teaching creative writing in the U.S. for twenty-five years and in New York, where she lives, she has received the Governor's Award for Education.

When I attended the Kenyon Review Fiction Workshop in the United States last year, there were workshops in other specializations running concurrently, and down the hall from my own group, Rebecca McClanahan was teaching creative non-fiction. "She's amazing," commented a woman in my own workshop group, who had attended one of McClanahan's workshops previously. And when I listened to McClanahan's students read from their works-in-progress one evening, it was clear that the work coming out of her class was extraordinarily good.

The closest I came to Dening's moment of excitement, in reading Word Painting, was in considering some of the outstanding examples of descriptive work by others that McClanahan incorporates into her text. She takes extracts from classic and contemporary writers and poets, including Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. But my favourites were her less predictable examples, some of which she has gleaned from children she has taught. She quotes a fourth grader named Tammy who in trying to describe the colour silver, writes "it smells like sparkling gases" and "tastes like a mouthful of bees" (78). A particularly concise and elegant passage of descriptive work comes from a fellow essayist:

Flour swirled in a slant of light and lined the creases of the baker's neck, salting his hair. He doused the work table with flour and kneaded the dough until it felt soft as an ear lobe, then cut pieces off the mass and balanced them on the enamel scale. He flattened the pieces with the palm of his hand to make thin disks, which he slipped into the oven. In the intense heat of the fires the loaves puffed up, hollow in the centre. Once out of the ovens they collapsed as they cooled, and he wrapped the bread in towels or muslin to keep it soft enough to fold around an olive or fresh cheese or a slice of cooked lamb (Jane Brox, "Bread," qtd. in McClanahan, 39).

What makes for good description is, of course, culturally determined. Unfortunately, the finer points of this fact are overlooked in McClanahan's book. She frames her preliminary discussion of effective description by referring (rather predictably) to Aristotle: the writer needs to use careful wording, sensory detail, "expressions that represent things in a state of activity" and well-chosen figurative language. McClanahan warns, quite rightly, that a description can do all these things and still not be effective. "We cannot conclude it is effective until we see how it affects the total piece of writing" (10). She divides the book into three sections accordingly, titling them 'eye', 'word' and 'story'. The first section works on sharpening sensory perception, the second on writing with clarity and accuracy, and the third on using description as a unifying force in a piece of writing as a whole. As long as the kind of writing the reader has in mind 'fits' with Aristotle's focus on mimesis, and by extension with Gardner's and McClanahan's version of the fictional dream, then this is a logically structured book with some useful things to say about writing more descriptively. McClanahan also draws on advice from a well-known stable of Americans, including Flannery O'Connor and Janet Burroway. For a reader not already familiar with these names, the collected advice is probably useful. I found it sadly uninspiring and highly conventional. I was not seduced.

Conscious that I was possibly a ring-in, an inauthentic reader, not 'general' enough, the question of audience kept niggling at the back of my mind as I read McClanahan's guide. And so, interested in what other readers might think, I conducted a preliminary search on a few literary databases to see how other reviewers had handled Word Painting. The search revealed a disturbing silence. It seems that nobody had thought enough about the book to write anything like a critical review. Perhaps this is not unusual for a Writers Digest imprint. Perhaps, again, this is a problem with genre. I turned instead to the Amazon.com site to see what kinds of "Spotlight Reviews" the perhaps more authentically 'general' reader might have written. The list I found there was revealing. There is a glowing testimonial from one reader whose copy of the book is apparently "dog-eared and full of highlighted notations" and who feels that the book is a "must-have for anyone who writes anything." There is another reader who didn't like the essay approach, lamenting that the book is "rambling" and that it is "hard to pick out key points" in a book that's basically "nearly 250 pages" of "random observations." This latter reader felt the essay approach defied the instructional genre, which apparently should be easier to navigate and far more concise. One of the most outrageous and amusing comments came from someone who purported to be not the least bit interested in writing and who has no intentions of becoming a writer: "[I] read this book while making my daily train commute to work. I found myself bursting out in laughter several times, attracting the stares of fellow commuters as if I had added some type of hallucinogenic drugs [sic] in my coffee. On three occasions, I was so involved in the book that I missed my station stop. This book exercised some type of hypnotical [sic] powers over my descriptive-starved [sic] brain." This particular reader's experience clearly contains moments of excitement, but whether they have been productive moments, in Dening's sense, remains uncertain.

My sojourn on the amazon.com site simply re-affirmed my suspicion: here-in lies a very troublesome genre that carries with it an equally troublesome notion of who its audience might be. The combination of trying to look after and provide knowledge to a stranger makes the possibility for agreement between reader and writer all too much of a hit-and-miss affair. I was not completely surprised by the non-writerly reader who was thoroughly seduced by McClanahan's prose. There are sections of Word Painting that read exceptionally well. She uses a lot of personal anecdotes - a particularly memorable one is used in an early chapter where McClanahan relates the story of her sister's loss of sight after the birth of her second child. The impact of this loss on both the family and the individual is revealed here, along with their reactions when it is discovered that the blindness is only temporary. Frequently such anecdotes are not only interesting to read, but are well-contextualised, in this case introducing a chapter titled "The Eye of the Beholder." McClanahan is clearly a skilled writer, and some of her most recent essays, included in Best American Essays 2001 and in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers on/of Creative Nonfiction, exemplify this. Her poetry - and she has published four volumes - is also critically acclaimed.

One could argue that to provide a thorough review of an instructional book on writing, one should sit down and follow the instructions. I haven't. What I have done is read McClanahan's book as a teacher, with an eye toward drawing out useful tidbits for using in the classroom with undergraduates. It seems to me that the usefulness of Word Painting for teachers of creative writing in a university setting is limited. It has little of the easy sophistication of Jack Hodgins's A Passion for Narrative, and it lacks the practical text-book nature of Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction. Having read it, it is quite likely I will go back to it at a later date looking to use one or two of McClanahan's examples or exercises for teaching purposes, but I doubt my copy will develop the dog-eared, much highlighted status of another reader's. The book is meant to be relevant to writers across poetry, fiction and non-fiction and I think that whilst this is the case, its generalist approach is also one of its weaker points. I would recommend the early chapter titled "The Eye of the Beholder" to both teachers and students of writing, but the later chapters fail to engage with the same sense of ease, particularly as the use of second-person point-of-view increases to the point of excess. Perhaps the key problem with Word Painting, for this reader, remains its uneasy genre (and by extension, its problematic relationship with its audience). I get the sense that McClanahan would be an outstanding teacher in a face-to-face situation. But unable as she is here to really get to know her readers, her ability to teach is severely hampered. It's a bit like listening to a pre-recorded guide through headsets on the way round a museum. The gap between guide and visitor is so wide that after a while you feel less and less inclined to listen. Funnily enough, one consequence of my reading McClanahan's book has been that it has forced me to think (again) about my own assumptions when I teach writing. Am I assuming too much about my students? Does my approach necessarily prevent certain types of writing from flourishing? I don't think these are the kinds of questions McClanahan set out to get her reader thinking about. But readers, as we know, rarely respond in a predictable manner. Part of me remains a little envious of that non-writer who kept missing her stop, even if it did make her late for work.

Works cited

Wood, James. "Tell me how does it feel?" The Guardian. 6 Oct. 2001. http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,6000,563868,00.html


Julienne van Loon is a lecturer in the Department of Communication and Cultural Studies at Curtin University of Technology.


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Vol 8 No 1 April 2004
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady