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The Power of Descriptive Writing

In last week’s post I wrote about the inspirational power of music on writing. I even shared some examples of music that inspired me through several scenes in my first book, Atonement. This week I want to talk about other books that have inspired me to be a better writer. I think we all have things that take us completely unaware, amazing surprises that touch us at our very core and inspire us to be better. Maybe that’s happened to you, and maybe it was an amazing writer that lit that torch. For me, one of the many writers that affected me that way is John Krakauer.

In the late nineties non-fiction writer John Krakauer wrote a book called Into Thin Air. It was a personal account of being trapped on Mt. Everest during a terrible storm. Eight climbers were killed in this horrific disaster while several others were stranded. It became a best-selling novel and went on to become a movie several years later. At the time I didn’t read non-fiction and I didn’t see the movie. My reading was narrow in scope and had yet to widen and mature.

Today, there really isn’t much I won’t read. I read everything from fiction to non-fiction, novella’s to poetry. I could give you some long rambling explanation for this, but in all reality, I think it’s just the wisdom of age. As I get older, I realize I don’t know it all, in fact, I know very little. It’s a humbling experience, but an eye opening one. I got to a place where I craved knowledge, and I didn’t restrict where it came from.

Along the way in my writing journey I came across a documentary about Chris McCandless, a young man from the East Coast of the United States that in 1992 hitchhiked to Alaska. He walked off into the wilderness and never returned. Several months later his body was discovered by local hunters. During the program they interviewed John Krakauer. He had written an article about the disappearance for the magazine Outside. He later turned that piece of investigative journalism into a best-selling book called Into the Wild, which once again was turned into a movie. I didn’t see the movie, but I read the book and it had a profound impact on me as a writer.

Most days, I do my best to put my thoughts onto paper and hope that the description is good enough for the reader to picture what I am telling them. On a great day I have a line or two where I think “hey, that’s pretty good.” Nothing compares to the descriptive writing of John Krakauer. I will probably spend my entire writing career aspiring to be half as good as he is. I have never read anyone else better at describing the outdoors. Whether it’s the vastness of Alaska or the deserts of the middle-east, his ability to bring nature alive in his writing is so unique and powerful, it’s unparalleled and he doesn’t need twenty-five pages to do it.

The first snippet below from Into the Wild best describes the protagonist and the ideals that drove him into the wilderness to begin with.

“The sun came up. As they rolled down from the forested ridges above the Tanana River, Alex gazed across the expanse of windswept muskeg stretching to the south. Gallien wondered whether he’d picked up one of those crackpots from the lower forty-eight who come north to live out ill-considered Jack London fantasies. Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives. The bush is an unforgiving place, however, that cares nothing for hope or longing.”

Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild (p. 4-5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This one gives me goosebumps, as if I am a voyeur spying on Chris McCandless in real time as he is walking off into the not so friendly wilderness.

“On the northern margin of the Alaska Range, just before the hulking ramparts of Mt. McKinley and its satellites surrender to the low Kantishna plain, a series of lesser ridges, known as the Outer Range, sprawls across the flats like a rumpled blanket on an unmade bed. Between the flinty crests of the two outermost escarpments of the Outer Range runs an east-west trough, maybe five miles across, carpeted in a boggy amalgam of muskeg, alder thickets, and veins of scrawny spruce. Meandering through the tangled, rolling bottomland is the Stampede Trail, the route Chris McCandless followed into the wilderness.”

Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild (pp. 9-10). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This last piece is the mentally harrowing helicopter ride of the parents of Chris McCandless as they go to the spot where his body was discovered. He had sought refuge in a VW bus left abandoned in the middle of the Alaskan bush.

“The helicopter labors upward, thwock-thwock-thwocking over the shoulder of Mt. Healy. As the altimeter needle brushes five thousand feet, we crest a mud-colored ridge, the earth drops away, and a breathtaking sweep of taiga fills the Plexiglas windscreen. In the distance I can pick out the Stampede Trail, cutting a faint, crooked stripe from east to west across the landscape.”

“Two thousand feet beneath the aircraft’s skids a mottled green tweed of muskeg and spruce forest now blankets the rolling country. The Teklanika appears as a long brown ribbon thrown carelessly across the land. An unnaturally bright object comes into view near the confluence of two smaller streams: Fairbanks bus 142. It has taken us fifteen minutes to cover the distance it took Chris four days to walk.”

Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild (pp. 199-200). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Every writer has someone that inspires them to be better at their craft. This writing really impacted me, and I strive to be better because now I know what better reads like.

Find me on Twitter @jlrothstein1 and tell me what you find inspiring and which writer you strive to emulate.

NPS Photo by Tim Rains for the Denali National Park and Preserve


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