My seventh grade advanced English class studied the descriptive paragraph. We read one aloud, then picked one to memorize and perform in front of the class, and finally we had to write one of our own.
The example we read aloud was of a t-rex coming through the trees in the most re-published short story of all time, Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder. We underlined adverbs and circled adjectives, then looked up definitions and synonyms. We learned about the Butterfly Effect.
I was reading Frank Herbert's Dune, so I pulled a paragraph from there which starts, “A pre-dawn hush had fallen over the desert basin.” I don’t remember the rest.
The last part of the assignment is trickier to recall. I wrote a paragraph about a guy who visits his dead wife’s grave. Our teacher, Mrs. Temple, ripped it to pieces. When I applied her notes, the man became much older. He needed help getting out of his car. Before placing flowers on his dead wife’s grave, he he’d wrapped them in a wedding vale that had yellowed with age (“swathed in a yellowing wedding vale” was the line, God help us; what do you want, I was thirteen), and he leaned heavily on a cane for support.
Mrs. Temple read both drafts in front of the class, one after the other, and critiqued both. I remember getting odds looks from people after she read the second draft. They weighed me with their eyes, discovering me for the first time.
I think there was a paragraph we had to edit to make descriptive. The elements were there; the man, the car, the grave, the cane. Actually, all I remember for certain was the cane. In my first draft, the cane “kept rhythm with his spry step” as the man walked away, which doesn’t sound much like visiting a grave (unless you’re glad this person died, an entirely different kind of descriptive paragraph). In the second draft the man “leaned heavily on his cane” as he shuffled away. Did the cane bow with the weight of his aged body, with the weight of grief in his heart? I’m sure it would if I wrote it now...and I'll probably look back on that with disdain in years to come, too.
I remember how much I liked the image of the cane, tapping rhythm with the man’s shiny black shoes. Maybe that was one of the problems Mrs. Temple addressed in her notes, how out of place it seemed at a gravesite. Maybe there was no grave at all, and the only image I had was of the cane so I changed the destination. Who knows?
Memory is a strange thing. I’m wise enough now to know that my memory and facts are not the same things. However it happened, seventh grade English was my first lesson in the importance of the editing process, of taking work I’d done to entertain myself and changing it to communicate something with a reader. There is nothing a like a fresh, objective, keen set of eyes on a piece to make it sing.
I’ve been in Lip Service twice now. My favorite part of the process both times has been those rehearsals at Andrea's house the Wednesday before, a bunch of writers fueled by wine and snacks, eager to view each-other’s work and make it better.
It’s what brought me back. Reading in front of a crowd was mostly an afterthought.