Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Words into Worlds

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro 

May 2014

Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink

“The job of a writer is to find the words to create a world.”

The job of a writer is to find the words to create a world. You need to summon up the words to describe the purpling of the bay in a storm, the iridescence green of a pigeon’s head, how mimosa blooms feather the spring air, the squirm, the hairs standing up on your nape when you sense someone staring at you, the rush of meeting the gaze of someone you’re attracted to.

We have a continuous response to what we see, hear, feel, and taste, and it all gets braided together. No matter how sharp your senses are, we can only take in a small part of what’s around us, or we’d go bonkers. And each of us takes in the world in a different way. I have friend who sniffs everything before she eats it, as if she’s a royal poison tester. A dog, whose eyesight is mostly limited to motion, inhales everything he passes, including poop. Everything holds valuable info and sensory delight to your pup. So how do we capture the elusive world in words?

We have to fish for them, just as Elizabeth Bishop, in her iconic poem, The Fish.

Listen to how she describes the fish she reeled in.

“Here and there
his skin hung in brown strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its patterns of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested with tiny white sea-lice
and underneath two or three
rags of weed hung down.”

“You need to become a word collector.”

Notice how clearly Bishop looks at what she’s describing? And she knows the names of what she wants to show you—sea lice, rosettes. You need to become a word collector. Look up every new word that comes your way, even if you don’t think you’ll need them. Read widely—books about the sea, the air, the stars, the earth, so that when you need them, they will float up like answers in one of those 8 ball toys that is supposed to tell the future.

Even if you are writing about the environment, it becomes a portrait of you, the writer—your interests, how you perceive, what’s crucial to you. And you have to be clear in order to invite the reader to join you. 

If you describe a meadow, really look at it, try to describe the crisscross of the tall grasses, the wildflowers, the courtship displays of the butterflies. If you do that, you and all your readers will be more likely to care if someone was going to bulldoze it. (A side effect of great description.)

Listen to how Thomas McGuane, describes Ben, a boy with disabilities in his story, Hubcaps, (New Yorker, April 21, 2014.) He (Owen) listened to Ben ramble on in his disjointed way about the baseball standings, his mouth falling open between assertions—“If Jerry Priddy didn’t hit the ball so high, he could hit the ball farther”—and his crooked arms mimicking the moves he described…”

“Keep your ears and eyes open to your world.”

Don’t you feel as if you’re sitting on the school bus across from Owen and Ben, watching them, listening to them? You have to capture the gestures, words, actions. Keep your ears and eyes open to your world so that you can put it into words for your readers.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and the Indie Award Winning finalist, Kaylee’s Ghost (Amazon and Nook). I Dare You To Write: First Aids, Warm Conforts, Sparking Advice for the Journey Ahead (Authorlink) is a collection of essays for anyone who dreams of writing. She has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.