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Descriptions are for Feeling

I’ve spent this week altering plot points in an important scene in my mystery novel. Since first I wrote it, the characters have evolved, their motivations have changed, and clues have moved, both geographically and logically. But when I surfaced from the job, I found that I had written almost nothing but plot. The reader was getting far too little help visualizing the scene precisely, getting the details that make places and events real and memorable.

Back to my trusty pocket notebook. It contains much plotless writing about things that have seized my eyes and my mind for reasons I wouldn’t even try to explain. None of them are directly relevant to my book. Still, reading these passages fills my mind with the experience of just noticing, of Being There. Maybe they’ll inspire me to find the details that will make my not-too-bad scene really good.

Here are a few of my pocket-notebook inspirations. I’d love to read some of yours.

At a meeting of our local weekly discussion group:

V_____ (a husband) talking, making sense, but pretty platitudinous. J____ (his wife) listening with unchanged expression and posture, but the hand holding her off-V_____ elbow was massaging it, tightening and loosening regularly.

G___ (a husband) discussing photos of galaxies in a book he owned, which he had already discussed with R______ (his wife.) He was addressing the rest of the group with the same arguments he and she had already gone over, but his eyes were usually on her, reliving their own discussion. A committed couple.

At a writing conference:

Up on stage, an author on a panel yaws his orange, desk-style chair rapidly left and right in a short arc. The other authors, in identical chairs, are perfectly still.

A writer teaches a class. As he speaks, in time with an upward lilt at the end of each sentence, his face first rises straight up, then straight out, always maintaining its vertical plane. With the adolescent (he’s not one) intonation, the gesture seems to mean, “You do see, don’t you? Am I being clear? Do you agree?” Sweet, if a bit phony. Yet somehow the gesture also seems mildly aggressive, snakelike.

In the room where I write:

A bird flew into the glass of the door to the balcony behind me. There was a softer thump than usual. I hoped that this would be one of the occasions when the bird just flew off with a headache. But when I went to look, he was lying on the balcony floor. I knelt to look, and saw that his eyes were open and unblinking. (At least I thought they were, but what color are a sparrow’s eyelids?) He wasn’t still. He lay on one wing and his little body was rocking quickly on its longest axis, backforth, backforth, backforth. I saw that he was not convulsing. There was no other movement, no movement of any part. Just his whole body, backforth, backforth, backforth. How could he do that without pushing any part of him against the floor? Then I realized that his heartbeat was moving him. In back and forth, I saw systole and diastole. Bismarck (my cat) came to the door and chittered. When I wouldn’t let him through, he sat and watched. I left, and when I returned, the bird was gone.

Months later: I am working at a card table. My elbows are braced on the table, coffee mug between my hands. My knapsack-purse stands across the table. I am motionless, but one strap of the purse, the looser and closer one, trembles. Why? I am seeing systole and diastole, my own.

A fruit fly remains on a piece of white paper where I put some grapes. A single fruit fly casts a shadow, even on an overcast day.

In the summer Music Tent in Aspen:

A description of Finns. I call them Finns because I think they might be, but more because the first of them I saw made me think at once of a Scandinavian gnome. He was an old man of middle height. We were sitting two rows up from him in the Benedict Music Tent, so I couldn’t see whether white hair sprouted from his ears. But his face was such that I was sure of the ear hair. His skin was a dark brown, but it looked weathered rather than tanned. Or perhaps “tanned” in the sense of leather. Large wrinkles divided his face into subsections. His eyebrows were wild, almost long enough to obscure his vision. His nose was large and long and bulbous, three lumps separated by two none-too-narrow narrower places. His mouth was wide, his lips not especially so. He was smiling, nodding, and talking energetically with the people who accompanied him. They were Aspen Standard, as far as I could see. I can’t remember whether I saw that his teeth were scraggly or assumed it. He was wearing standard old-guy-in-Aspen clothes, a vaguely Western sports shirt and slacks.

The woman was sitting in the row behind them. She came in later with other people, but they all seemed to know one another. My first thought was that she was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. But at the same time, her face was welcoming. I had to work not to stare, and then not to be caught staring. She was the man’s age and about the same height. Her skin was almost as brown as his, very smooth but speckled with large age spots. Aside from the old-lady, nose-to-chin wrinkles, she had almost none. In profile, her face made a perfect convex curve. Her chin was well back, but not receding in a slant; it looked firm, and she didn’t have the feeble, chinless look of a Bertie Wooster. Like the man, she had high cheekbones and a very notable nose. Her nose curved like a raptor’s beak, but not like a witch’s: it didn’t curve back in, but ended at its outermost point, with the septum horizontal to the ground. Not small, but neat. Both man and woman had large ears, his relatively larger than hers, but her hair framed her ears and made them stand out. Her hair was long but not full, clipped back with barrettes behind the ears and straggling down her back. From the roots to her shoulders, it was a slightly grayish white. There, in a visible line, it became a faded, reddish light brown, as if some instantaneous shock had flipped a switch in her scalp. She too was smiling and talking, and her expression made me want to know her.

Now, back to my scene. I’m going for three, very short details with the feel of these passages. I suppose “short” will be the hard part.

An Aspen Phantasmagoria

What brought all this on was a man who passed me on the sidewalk of Main Street in Aspen, Colorado, one fine July morning. He’d be called a “big guy” by the polite; that is, he was well over six feet tall and appeared to be pregnant. His expression was mildly concussed, though most likely, that was just pot. Stretched across his beer belly was a drab gray, hip-length tee shirt sporting in firework colors the legend, BAZINGA!

Not an unusual sight in Aspen. But there are few unusual sights here. Anything and everything shows up, and nobody pays any attention. Incongruities rub shoulders without noticing one another. The motto seems to be “Never connect.”

This fact only started bothering me when I started to write. Writers invent connections, of course. That’s the job. But in most places, in most situations, there’s a pre-existing network of workaday relationships growing through time, a warp and woof. On that, we stitch a story. If you write about Aspen, you write without a net.

Chronology won’t help you. Aspen’s history is a series of jerks and starts. A mining boom created the town in 1879, but by the 1930s, population had dropped again to 700 or so. After WWII, the craze for skiing brought in small numbers of permanent residents and many more seasonal ones. In came the full-time ski bums and the part-time resort patrons. And money. And more money.

Finally, one Walter Paepcke, corporate executive, philanthropist, skier, music lover, founded the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Ski Corp. and the Aspen Music Festival and School on top of everything else. That was the Big Bang, and Aspen has been hurtling away from itself ever since. The ski bums, the potheads, the fat cats, the intellectuals all orbit their own kind and pass through the rest like neutrinos.

So here are a couple of weeks’ observations from the streets, restaurants and concert venues of Aspen. Make of them what you will.


The program announces Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major. The soloist will be Augustin Handelin, unknown to me. The concertmaster appears, wearing black tie. The conductor appears, wearing black tie. Pause. The soloist appears. He is dressed in a Nehru jacket of grubby white with matching trousers whose hems drag behind his heels. He stops, bows, smiles. Can it be? He seems to be wearing lipstick on a mouth (and none of us can help how we’re made) that has side extensions like the Joker in the Batman movies. Surely that powdery white is not his natural complexion? The Concerto has an extended opening before the soloist begins. He stands and waits, grimacing with overwhelming emotion. Or with something. I can’t watch. And then, note by perfect note, he takes the entire audience to Heaven with him.


Aspen is full of terrifying crones with long, jet-black hair (perfectly coiffed), gold jewelry of ball-and-chain weight, blood-red lips and eyebrows disciplined into the perfect accent circonflexe. They do not look like people who listen. Some of them, however, do take mountain hikes. Their presence lingers on the trail in the scent of Diorissimo.


Not all female denizens are slaves of the salon. The New England Puritan is well represented. From my seat at a window table of The Bakery, I watch a woman of a certain age with streaky gray hair, sitting at the bus stop. Her ironed blouse, shorts and vest are as neutral as her hair, spotless and rigorously ordinary. One knows that she bought the turquoise running shoes only because they didn’t come in beige. Beneath the crags of Ajax Mountain she sits, the New York Times folded beside her, atop a copy of The Atlantic.


A new(er)comer to the Aspen Institute complex is the Aspen Center for Physics. Here, people whose brains are of another order than yours or mine come to think about the nature of the universe in peace and quiet. But the Institute does its best to reach out to all sorts and conditions of men. Hence you may, if you like, attend a lecture tonight on “Engineered Magnetism in an Atomic Bose-Einstein Condensate.”


Just down valley in Basalt, Colorado’s newly legal marijuana industry is powering up. The selectboard will wrestle tonight with its own problems of physics: the mountain wind currents and the greenhouse exhaust fans are choking retail and residential districts with the skunky smell of cannabis bloom.


Way, way back in the seventh row of violins (Aspen orchestras run heavy to strings), sits a very small Japanese girl, perhaps 16 years old. She has followed the orchestra dress code: her blouse is white, her skirt and shoes black; she wears no jewelry. But her hair has been cut and dressed to fall in asymmetric wedges and some of it is caught up in a plastic clip shaped like Hello Kitty. She is clearly human, but a human modeled on an anime character crossed with a furry marketing behemoth. One assumes this was voluntary.


Is this just me? Are all these disconnects making me see grotesques where there are none? A scarier question: am I one of them, at least when I’m here?

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