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.
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.