"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

A Meditation on the Nose

April 11th, 2016 by

“I love your nose.”

I heard this line in a real, if ill-fated, two-month romance in college. During that watery, dreamy time, I also heard loving references to other facial features as well. “I love your eyes. I love your mouth, your chin.” All of my face, for a few weeks, seemed worthy of admiration. I got a little spoiled. At nineteen, I began to think that life was meant to be lived under the admiring gaze of the lover.

Today, when I hear passages like this one, I understand that they are typical of the romance novel. References to a lover’s eyes especially seem to be a staple of the genre. Eyes can smolder. They can simmer. They burn. They can even appear to change shape and color. A closer look at these descriptions might prove instructive in matters of effective writing, if not in matters of love.

Love and Consciousness
Though they seem focused on admiring a human face, these passages provide no detail. We learn nothing about a specific face. I don’t mean to hold causal lovers to the same standards I hold fiction writers to. But if it is in print, we have to. Unless the author intrudes in what James Woods calls the “free indirect style” and gives greater consciousness to the piece, going beyond the lover’s limited expression, we won’t learn anything from the prose about the beloved’s nose, eyes, or chin. We can be free to project–perhaps the eyes were blue–or brown. Perhaps the chin protrudes.

And this may suggest the motive behind the vagueness. As in love, I suspect that writing of this sort is meant to invite a huge projection of the reader’s less conscious mind onto the page. All fiction requires projection. But in romance, the larger the projection, the stronger the emotion. And the description is the pathway. It reminds me of the spare decor in a house that has been put on the market. When we sold our house, our real estate agent told us to empty the rooms of all of our personal belongings so that people coming to the open houses could project their own lives into the house.

That works in real estate. It seems to work with romance fiction. But in the final analysis, when we wake up from the fictive dream, we won’t really see what the lover means to convey, other than a lot of amorousness.

Description and Absence
Good descriptive writing, at least for me, is difficult. I find dialogue easier to write than description. I have a better time hearing than I do seeing, and this may have something to do with a failure to be observant. Or it may have to do with a lack of interest or love for others. When I read fiction, I find that there is always a certain amount of fantasy, what psychological professionals call projection, going on. Never mind the most famous, recent examples of this in the Twilight novels. Types, even stereotypes, and what pass for cultural norms, these generally abound. But it is not enough to mention the nose, as the lover does above.

Granted, everyone has a nose, unless they don’t. Then, the absence of the nose deserves mentioning. Otherwise, unless it is active in the dialogue or a given character’s persona–for example, a character sniffs a great deal when other people are talking–it hardly deserves mentioning.

None of this is what we get in the passage above. What we get is that the lover loves the beloved’s nose. We might learn more if we are given the detail that the lover loves upturned noses, thinks them cute and suggestive of innocence, like the noses of elementary school children. Such an observation merges description with character development.

In Life and Line-Ups
This problem with description has more to do with life than just fiction. Police filing reports usually find that victims are horrible at picking suspects out of line-ups. And trying to get a victim to describe a suspect is even worse. We just don’t do it well. People say this: “Well, he had a nose. His eyes were…threatening.”

I recently asked someone for a description of another person I hadn’t seen in five years. My friend couldn’t do this. I learned nothing about how this other person had aged.

This may go back to our desires. We may not want to talk about receding hairlines or puffy cheeks or weight gain. We may desire to see others in a more positive light.

This is to talk again about character development–all within the consciousness of the good fiction writer.

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