Observation Journal — much-used words and symbolism

Usually I post observation journal pages chronologically, which is why I’m still working through last year. These three pages, however, are very current. (I’ll scan them eventually).

I am editing a draft of a story this month. This means I am confronted by words I regularly overuse. Sometimes this is simply because I think they’re neat, or get in a habit. But some words I use because I like them and they mean something to me. When I use the word “green” it’s less about description than about trying to invoke some nebulous, numinous green-ness.

So I finally sat down to work out what I actually *mean* when I use some of my most overused words.

Here is “green”:

This approach is a work-in-progress, but it has already been useful both for edits and for clarifying my thoughts on a story.

For example: Is this person wearing a green coat because I wanted a sense of growth? An engulfing quality? A lichenous texture? Is the sea glinting like bottles or iridescent with decay? Would I even paint the trees as green, or was I trying to capture a bilious or purple effect that belongs to greenness and the wild? Is a hedge dense and velvety with blue shadows? Is it springing with new leaves and sharp with the scents of herbs? Is this very green story about decay or wildness or dissolution or new growth, or several of those things?

This exercise is, of course, partially about specificity. But it’s also about reaching for the meanings behind the word.

Here are “Shadows”:

And it turns out, half the time I’m thinking of shadows as luminous and vermilion-flecked, and almost always as less about concealment than about deeper or distant truth (thanks, Robert Frost and George MacDonald). And so maybe I should occasionally say that.

Here I took it a little sideways, to look more at an object than a word — coats:

I like writing coats more than cloaks, as a general rule. This page is less about breaking up the description of them, and more about looking at the habit: are there symbols I could clarify, or things an audience might not realise I’m using a coat as a shorthand for? And if I know that I’m using a coat as a sort of Swiss-army-knife of a garment, which stands for practicality and adventure and records the story on its surface, could I use (for example) an actual Swiss army knife instead? Or could I play with forcing those roles onto something unexpected, like a spangled scarf?

(I’m going to try this exercise again soon with my most overused word: “and”.)

Writing/illustration Exercises (I’ll probably refine these by the next time I post about it)

  • Choose a word (or for artists: an images/object/colour/treatment) you know you overuse, or suspect you might overuse, or have been scolded about by editors. Even — or perhaps especially — if it’s something you like using, and suspect you keep coming back to for a reason.
  • Start breaking down why and how you use it. You’ll find your symbols and shorthands are different. And even the high-level categories might change. But as a starting point, here are some of the ones I used (for fairly free associations) — once I had these, I started getting into more detail.
    • colour (not just other words for it, but if — for you —it contains other colours, scarlet in shadow and mustard in green; or if the default colour of a coat is green — if you don’t think visually, look at some pictures that feel particularly that colour to you, and see what other colours are in them)
    • temperature
    • texture (actual and what you think it should feel like)
    • actions
    • body language (even if you don’t describe it, what’s your default for character interaction with this thing: frolicking? cowering?)
    • movement
    • smell
    • things
    • sounds
    • opposite of
    • associations/influences (“if your mother mends a coat cut about and tore“)
    • symbolises/means
    • places
    • weight
    • decay (this was specific to green, then I tried it on “shadow” and it was intriguing)
    • conceals (this was shadow-specific but it got into “coat” as well)
    • role (of the object, or of the people associated with it)
    • necessary components (coats, when I write them, need buttons and pockets and linings)
  • Take a scene or sentence in which you use the word, and see if you can use these new lists to adjust and specify the description, or simply strengthen it. (Red hat or jaunty hat or the fragile defiant headgear of someone about to meet a wolf?)
  • Could you give another colour/object/movement the same symbolic meaning? Could you make violet feel like orange, or high-heels or a serving spoon serve the purpose of a fedora?
  • Could you flip the symbolism of that word, and make a leather jacket mean giddy flamboyance or restlessly drumming fingertips mean peace?

6 thoughts on “Observation Journal — much-used words and symbolism

  1. “When I use the word “green” it’s less about description than about trying to invoke some nebulous, numinous green-ness.” AAUGH I LOVE THIS!

  2. Pingback: November 2021 — round up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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