Paint Your Past

Write Memoir with Descriptive Words

Tag: Word Painting

How to Write Descriptively – Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan

Descriptive Writing stands out to me. I have posted a couple of times about books in which Laura Ingalls Wilder has written descriptively, and the opening lines of Bridge to Terabithia  are what captured me about that book.

 Something Wicked This Way Comes

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month, school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. – Prologue Something Wicked This Way Comes.

I heard the above passage at the beginning of the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes, and even though everything else about that scene was also working beautifully, it was the word–the outstanding description that seized me.

Because I appreciate descriptive writing, I have decided to spend a chunk of time studying it and to begin a bank of what I consider to be some of the best descriptive writing. If you discover some beautifully descriptive lines, please email them to me, and I’ll add your contribution to the bank. I’ll tell you more about that project in another post. In this post, I want to share portions of Rebecca McClanahan’s fabulous book about descriptive writing: Word Painting. 


All of the Remaining Image Credits to Amazon, where you can buy this book.


McClanahan offers the following definition of Description:

“In literature, description refers to the language used to bring …attributes to the reader’s mind. Description is an attempt to present as directly as possible the qualities of a person, place, object or event. When we describe, we make impressions, attempting through language to represent reality. Description is, in effect, word painting.” McClanahan, Word Painting, p. 7.

McClanahan offers a list of things that Description is NOT:


Let’s consider a few of these points individually:


As we begin learning to write descriptively, you may initially write things that are excessively flowery. After writing for a while, however, you’ll begin to distinguish your excessively flowery writing from good, solid description.



When we begin to write good description, we are often compelled to describe things that are not pretty and pleasant to behold.


Writing with good description does not require using the biggest and most pompous words in the dictionary:


McClanahan’s entire book is wonderful, and it is filled with tips for writing descriptively.


Descriptive Writing in Odour of Chrysanthemums by D.H. Lawrence – Free Audio Book


Odour of Chrysanthemums by D.H. Lawrence is an excellent story for any writer to study. The use of description is masterful, and in fact, it is the vehicle used to deliver almost the entire tale–to set its stage, to create the characters, and to move the plot forward.

Let’s examine the use of description on the first page:

The description of the locomotive starts the story. Listen to the way that the locomotive sounds:

“The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston with seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threads of speed….” 

As the locomotive moves into view, the plot develops, and we learn more about the locomotive. We see that it is not speeding or at least, it is not traveling faster than the colt:

“…the colt that it startled from among the gorse…outdistanced it at a canter.”

Also in the above passage, as the reader notices the awakened colt and then, follows him as he streaks across the gorse, an energy and an aliveness fills the scene.

The following description begins to create a sense of foreboding:

“The fields were dreary and forsaken, and in the marshy strip that led to the whimsey, a reedy pit-pond, the fowls and had already abandoned their run among the alders to roost in the tarred fowl-house. The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores liking its ashy sides, in the afternoon’s stagnant light.”

In describing the miners on their way home from work, the scene takes on even more of a mood:

“Miners, single, trailing and in groups, passed like shadows diverging home.”

As we initially view the cottage, the tone is further developed:

“At the edge of the ribbed level of sidings squat a low cottage, three steps down from the cinder track. A large bony vine clutched at the house, as if to claw down the tiled roof. Round the bricked yard grew a few wintry primroses.”

In describing the cottage’s garden, even more of the mood is established:

“Round the bricked yard grew a few wintry primroses. Beyond, the long garden sloped down to a bush-covered brook course. There were some twiggy apple trees, winter-crack trees, and ragged cabbages. Beside the path hung dishevelled pink chrysanthemums, like pink cloths hung on bushes. “

I don’t want to say more about the story until you have had time to read it Here or listen to the Free Audio Book.


The story Odour of Chrysanthemums is a masterpiece, and the chrysanthemums themselves are characters that provide different levels of insight in different spots. Lawrence did something particularly notable with his use of description to create the character of the husband, who never actually enters the story’s action. We only see the husband through the ways that other characters perceived him.

The wife is weary of a husband who has habitually passed the cottage on the way home and gone to the pub to get drunk. The children are anxious about their father for the same reason. The husband’s mother describes him as a person who once was a lovely lad but who had become trouble, as an adult.

Read the complete story, and discover all of the many ways that D.H. Lawrence uses description in Odour of Chrysanthemums.

©Jacki Kellum August 4, 2016

From the movie:

Paint Your Past With Words – Jacki Kellum Memoir

The above is William Faulkner’s home Rowan Oak. While I was in college at Ole Miss, I worked as a curator in Faulkner’s home.

I often write about the fact that before I moved to the southern part of New Jersey, I had lived 53 years in the South. One might say that I used to be a Southerner, but that is not actually the case. I am still a Southerner. I am simply a Southerner who is living in the North.

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Before I began writing [about 10 months ago], I expressed myself as a painter. Since October 1, 2015 [when I began to write], I have not painted another thing. One might also say that I used to be a painter, but that is not true either. I still see the world visually, and I am still a painter. On the best of my writing days, I paint pictures with words, and I believe that my years as a visual artist help me to do that.

When I write descriptively, I literally close my eyes and see something inside my mind, and while my eyes are still closed, I type the words that describe what I see in my head. I recently encountered a challenge to capture 10 seconds of time in words, but the difficulty of the challenge was that the piece of writing had to be at least a page in length or about 400 words. While the piece could be longer than that, it could not be much shorter. No thinking or thoughts could be expressed in the writing about a period of 10 seconds. The piece was to be limited only to what was actually happening. No judgments were allowed. I wrote the following:

The Lamp in the Foyer

A spindly and too-thin five-year-old tiptoed across the floor, and the wide, wooden planks creaked and groaned. As Dood walked, she released the smell of old and oily wood from the floorboards. The little girl had spied Grandma’s glass lamp across the foyer, and she had headed toward it. Dood loved to trace her fingers around the red roses that were painted on each of the lamp’s orbs, and that was how the moment began.

Even though it was mid-day and the lamp was not lit, the scent of kerosene and charred wick was still heavy from the night before. A fringe of  diamond-like pendants hung from around the lamp’s upper globe. Dood reached outward and pulled one of the crystals back and let it go, and the dangling shards bounced into each other. One after another, the pieces of glass clinked and jingled. The mirror, that was behind the rosy lamp, caught the rippling reflection and flung it back into the room. Like fireflies, the light flickered from wall to wall.

A stained glass window was mounted in the heavy oak frame that was perched at the top of the front door. A wave of bright sunlight streamed through the multi-colored panels and at the same time, a gust of wind blew through the hallway, causing the colorful light from the stained glass window to skip across the floor and into the mirror. A kaleidoscope of color bounced across the crystal fringe, and like a circus carousel,the pendants of glass rattled and danced more wildly. Tiny, little rainbows rollicked around and around and around.

©Jacki Kellum August 5, 2016

Most people would probably agree that when we write about what we know, we ae able to write more vividly. I believe that much of this is linked to the fact that when we are in the Writing Zone, our intuitions take over and begin to write for us. In order for this to happen, we must have a reservoir of images within ourselves, and when the intuition begins to describe, it  dives deep within and paints pictures of what it sees inside.

Although the above passage is ostensibly about my mother when she was a child and living in her grandmother’s home, it is actually a description of my own memories. I don’t have a copy of my mother’s memories within myself, and my intuition cannot depict what my mother saw and heard. My intuition was not around when my mother was a child. The glass lamp that I described was my mother’s lamp, and as a little girl, I loved to trace my fingers around the roses that were painted on the orbs.

I believe that it is not uncommon for people to describe their own experiences within their writings of historical fiction or biography. When a person strives to write about someone else’s past, it becomes historical fiction to one extent or another. We can never fully know the experiences of another person.

James Fennimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans and several other books that were set in the area around his home in upstate New York. In one of the books, he wrote about how the Native Americans would canoe to a big boulder to meet. This big boulder is Council Rock, which is an actual rock that is very near Cooper’s childhood home. The description of the rock in Cooper’s writing of historical fiction is beautiful and when we know that Cooper had first-hand experiences with the rock, we have little doubt that in writing what is supposedly fiction, Cooper was describing from his own memories.

For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known…
I am a part of all that I have met…Alred Lord Tennyson – Ulysses
Allow me to return to my opening paragraph. For 53 years, I lived and loved in the South and because “I am a part of all that I have met,” I am still a Southerner. But now, I am also a person from the Shore of South Jersey. I am both the South and the North and the cotton patches where I grew up, too. Likewise, because I have actually painted for many years, I am still a painter, but now, I am not only a visual artist, I am also a painter of words.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I cannot refrain from saying again and again, that our most penetrating and our most exquisite writing lies within our own pasts. In examining our pasts, we reclaim our authentic voices. Too often painters go to Italy and paint the orange homes that hang from the cliffs there or they go to the Alps or to Paris to paint. When we paint best, however, we paint what we live daily; and the same thing is true in writing. We need to write what you know. But the first part of that equation is to know the person who writes.
©Jacki Kellum August 7, 2016


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