“Through the stillness snow fell not in skeins but in infinitely layered arabesques, filigree in motion, ornamenting the city air, of an especially intense white in the dove-gray light of the morning, laying boas on the limbs of leafless trees, ermine collars on the tops of walls, a grace of softness in a hard world.”
This is a quote from Innocence, the first Dean Koontz book I ever read. I hadn’t expected his prose to be so elaborate and beautiful. This part in particular made me think about the nuances of description, and how I could do it better.
In this passage, “laying boas on the limbs of leafless trees” immediately made me see snow, the way it collects light and fuzzy on tree branches. I’m enchanted by the images, the snow falling in skeins, flakes thick as yarn, the idea of filigree in motion, infinitely layered arabesques. I have never read a description of snow quite like this, and yet the picture it evokes is familiar enough I know it intimately.
In a high school art class, my art teacher gave us pictures of faces to sketch. But before we got started, he turned all our reference pictures upside down. “Don’t see this as an eye,” he said, gesturing to the picture. “See it as a collection of shapes. Draw the shapes that you see, not what you think an eye should be.”
That class taught me more than just how little artistic ability I have. That lesson in particular made me realize that even before I see something, my mind has already made assumptions about its shape and meaning. I can see these assumptions emerge when I write about peachy skin or howling wind or a hundred other things we perceive as much with words as with our senses.
For myself, I take time here and there to try and see, really see, the world as though it is upside down. To see the lines and the shapes and the colors like fresh snow, a white stretch of possibility that no one else has touched yet. At the very least, it reminds me that there is much beauty everywhere, and that will inspire me if nothing else does.
“There is no end of wonders and mysteries: fireflies and music boxes, the stars that outnumber all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world, pinhead eggs that become caterpillars that dissolve into genetic soup from which arise butterflies, that some hearts are dark and others full of light.” – Dean Koontz, Innocence
You can pick up Innocence here.