On the first week of the six-week online class I’m taking, “Writing the Other,” the homework consisted of the following instructions:
Below are 7 pictures. Do this exercise once with each of them:
Set a timer for 5 minutes for each picture. Take no more than 20 seconds (time yourself!) to take in the picture and the person in it, then start writing a description of that person. You can describe their physical features, you can make up a personality for them, ascribe emotions to them, whatever comes to you. Go with your first instincts and keep your fingers moving until the timer goes off. Like the other exercises, this is not about producing publishable material; it’s about writing, not thinking.
The exercise is called “hothouse descriptions” because it’s like hothouse “forcing,” coaxing blooms out of season. The pictures were all obtained from the fantastic “Humans of New York” project. (I invite you to browse the HoNY site, it’s so much fun.)
Later on, every participant in the class was invited to look at others’ descriptions and highlight words that attracted their attention for whatever reason. Here are my seven descriptions, and notes on the words that other students highlighted. (I cropped the images to fit here.) I’ll add my reflections on the exercise at the bottom of the page.
#1 – He was a man with wide features — thick eyebrows, wide eyes, wide nose, wide mouth — emphasized by his horizontal wrinkles on his forehead and ears that stuck out to the sides. His was a pleasantly homely, somewhat dreamy face. He wore a black winter jacket with a plushy collar, and a black-and-white pied-de-poule scarf. He look to the side, perhaps embarrassed by the attention he was receiving. I wondered if his voice would be craggy or soft, deferent or sonorous.
Words highlighted: wide (x2), wrinkles (x2), homely (x3), dreamy (x2), plushy, pied-de-poule (x2), craggy, sonorous.
Comments: I used “pied-de-poule”, the French term for this pattern, because of the time constraint when I could not remember what it’s called in English (hound’s tooth.)
#2 – She smiled broadly, the sparkle of her eyes barely dimmed by the hipster glasses. A bright blue scarf framed her face, a blue that spoke of sky, sea, flowers, birds, and comfort, and stood out against her black sweater. A bracelet shone around her left wrist with large beads, stones or charms, I could not tell. She seemed like a person I would enjoy sharing a cup of coffee with, and commenting on the unseasonable weather with. Would she think it rude or charming to be asked to coffee by some strange woman?
Words highlighted: broadly (x2), sparkle (x2), hipster, blue, comfort (x3), sharing, rude.
#3 – His sharp profile made me think of some famous actor going incognito, perhaps Roy Schneider or Sir Ian McKellan: elegantly dishevelled grey hair, dark sunglasses, the sweep of a fedora that sat well on his head, the staunch rise of a Burberry collar, a hint of cashmere scarf. I imagined him a once-famous theatre star, perhaps, now forgotten by many but remembered by fans of discerning taste. Would he flee recognition, or be secretly pleased that someone had seen behind the disguise?
Words highlighted: sharp, incognito (x3), elegantly, dishevelled (x3), hint, once-famous (x2), star, discerning (x2), flee, disguise.
#4 – She looked lovely, and I wondered if she knew it. Not perfect: a few skin blemishes, a nose slightly too large, made her entirely human. But her hair smoothly brushed back from a well-shaped forehead looked soft and had a lovely depth of walnut hues; her eyes were clear and bright; her eyebrows, though carefully groomed, followed a graceful natural sweep. She looked like someone who took care to look her best, perhaps like all of us worrying over imperfections, but with enough confidence and character to accept them rather than try to look like someone else.
Words highlighted: lovely, smoothly brushed, well-shaped, walnut, clear, bright, graceful, character (x3), accept.
#5 – I thought he looked like a man well-travelled. He had a strong face, and the lines in it, along with the grey streak parting his curly black hair, suggested he might be in his fifties. Lines around his eyes, and thick eyebrows slightly frowning for the moment, suggested both laughter and inquisitiveness, both wariness and insight. His jacket said “business-man”, his colourful checkered shirt open at the throat answered “on vacation,” and the matching handkerchief emerging from his left breast pocket spoke of a sense of fashion.
Words highlighted: well-travelled (x3), grey streak, inquisitiveness (x2), wariness, emerging (x2).
#6 – She had coaxed her motorized scooter-style wheelchair up the slab of stone and beamed back at the camera. Her short spiky white hair made her look like an elderly pixie, celebrating a prank. I was sure purple must be one of her favourite colours, because it splashed in motifs against the blue background of her patterned skirt, it wrapped her legs in the form of thick stockings, and it shone from the large utility purse hanging from the scooter’s handles. She was bundled up in a jacket against the nippy weather, and I could almost hear her breath coming in as sharp gasps of cold air.
Words highlighted: scooter-style, beamed, pixie (x3), prank, splashed (x2), bundled, nippy, gasps (x3).
#7 – She was carrying the mail to the post office in a box she cradled with her left arm. She had dressed warmly for the season this morning, with a dark woollen coat and knitted hat, but by now the day had warmed so that she let her coat swing open over a blouse patterned with large tropical flowers in yellows, browns and greens. Her hair was dark and wavy, her roundish horn-rimmed glasses reminded me of the 1980s and I wished I could carry the look like that. She sang softly along with the music player tucked into her right coat pocket, the earphones buried under cap and hair, betrayed only by a white cord.
Words highlighted: cradled, swing, open, tropical (x2), horn-rimmed, sang (x2), betrayed (x2),
So, final thoughts. After the first two or three, I noticed I was not saying much about possible racial or ethnic markers. I asked myself whether I was avoiding the topic, but I did not feel constrained (except by time) while I was writing, so I decided to just keep doing what came naturally. I was content to suggest rather than state, and I also noticed that my focus was much more on the way people constructed their own look consciously (for example, with sartorial and grooming choices) or unconsciously (for example, with wrinkles from habitual expressions.)
In truth, I often don’t feel confident assigning racial (whatever that means) or ethnic identities; I had no idea for #1, #2 and #7, for example. Sure, I assumed that #2 was Muslim, but that told me nothing about ethnic or racial origin. On the other hand, #3, #4 and #6 looked like they might be of European descent; in the case of #4, I would have guessed Eastern Europe and recent immigration. And #5, as I said in my description, looked to me like he could have been around the globe before.