CRAFT FOCUS: CM Chapman on Descriptive Strategy

CM Chapman (Fiction '15) contributes to the WVWC MFA Blog with an excellent craft piece certain to make all writers examine their work for their own use of description. Here he examines a short story from one of John Gardner's collections. Those of us not having read this collection will certainly make a quick click to our favorite book shop to grab a copy for ourselves. Additionally, we'll be anxiously awaiting Chapman's novel in stories, SUICIDAL GODS, which is tentatively scheduled for release in October 2019.

Imaginary Joan: A Look at Descriptive Strategy

As writers, we often find ourselves describing things directly. Certainly, there is a need for specificity in many cases. As we know, the detail can cement the reality. Every once in a while, though, I find myself looking at one of my own descriptive passages and hating it. It is at those times when I know I need a different angle.

Once, during my MFA studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College, I had the opportunity to examine some of the descriptive strategies in John Gardner’s The Art of Living and Other Stories. This book of ten stories, by one of the 20th century’s best writers, is a treasure trove of descriptive strategies, and I often think of it when I’m looking for one of those different angles. In particular, I remember the story, “Stillness.”

Here, we have the story of Joan Orrick, the wife of a famous writer. This is an amazing setting piece, set in St. Louis, both in the story's present day and its past. The setting, and its changes over time, mirror the changes within Joan and her relationship to her snooty husband. Gardner establishes the setting right out of the gate when the couple stops at “a light at the corner of Olive Street and Grand...” and “...when they left Highway 70 and nosed past the arch...”  (Gardner 49).  Again, specifics solidify the setting and make you ready for the description coming soon afterward.

“Beyond the stadium... the scrubbed, unconvincing show of government buildings, the husk of the grand old railroad station where she'd met him...” (Gardner 49). That descriptive passage not only prepares the reader for a dip into the past, but firmly establishes how 'dead' the place appears to Joan, “everything was gray, windblown, burnt out” (Gardner 49).  This description mirrors and supports how Joan feels inside. 

Then, an interesting device is used to bounce the reader into some descriptive acrobatics. What would Joan have thought about present-day St. Louis if she'd had a vision of it in the past? (Gardner 50). Gardner applies a question to setting that most people use in reference to their lives, and to great effect, first, to lead into past-Joan's physical description which then blends seamlessly into a long description of the city as it was when she looked that way. All of this, in turn, accentuates the 'deadness' of the modern city as her attention returns to it and compares. “’I'm in the future!’ the imaginary Joan would finally have realized, ‘and there's been some terrible war, or a plague, and everything's been ruined’” (Gardner 51). I use a piece of dialogue in a discussion on description to point out what a wonderful descriptive device the “imaginary Joan” is.

At that point, “imaginary Joan” starts describing present-day people, including “real Joan.” What an interesting way to discover her physical description, “the lady in the fur, with emeralds, and a ruby and a diamond on her fingers was herself—her own ‘child,’ Wordsworth would say...” (Gardner 52). He even gets an astoundingly appropriate reference to Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” in there, right before he uses it all to bring the story firmly back to the present, offering the image of the hands of imaginary Joan and real Joan coming together until the child's hand disappears, leaving her “gazing at a cracked sidewalk, a piece of dirty cardboard: Fragile” (Gardner 52).  

Description can help us to understand the inner landscape as well as the outer, and sometimes it can come from unexpected places, imaginary places, carrying a momentum of its own which affects the story. I often think of imaginary Joan when considering a different descriptive angle.

Like all of John Gardner’s work, The Art of Living and Other Stories is rich with these strategies, including some fine examples of describing something by describing something else, juxtaposing one description on top of another, and utilizing sound. Imaginary Joan is an amazing device, but it barely scratches the surface of a master craftsman's incredibly diverse descriptive methods.

 Work Cited

Gardner, John. The Art of Living and Other Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Print.

C.M. Chapman has appeared in Cheat River Review, Limestone, Dark Mountain in the U.K., and the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He is the author of the chapbook, Music and Blood, from Latham House Press, a 2017 Pushcart nominee, and was a finalist in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award for fiction. He is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he serves as an Adjunct Professor of English.