A Story of Description
by Meredith Leigh Burton
Standing at the broad podium in the auditorium, I traced my hands along the familiar text, my voice rising and falling in syncopated rhythm as I read a portion from the first chapter of my book. Reading of any kind transports me, even if it is my own words. I travel with my characters on their journeys. In this particular case, I entered an apple orchard with Jenna, my blind Beauty character from my Beauty and the Beast retelling. I carried my guidance tool in hand, letting it traverse the well-worn path before me. Upon reaching the familiar apple tree, I, along with Jenna, listened to the mysterious, agonized cries issuing from behind the tree. Along with Jenna, I met a mysterious young boy who at first did not realize that I could not see him. Then, as the chapter closed, I learned from the mob of villagers who had followed in pursuit of me that the “boy” was in actuality a beast.
Silence filled the hall as I ceased reading and returned to reality. Then the applause began, a swelling cacophony of approval that always filled me with grateful awe. The applause was unexpected and a humbling reward.
“Does anyone have questions they would like to ask about the story or about my writing?” I asked when the applause faded away.
After a few questions pertaining to the equipment I use to write, where people might obtain my book, ETC., a young woman’s voice filled the hall. “Your descriptions are very vivid. How can you describe the apple orchard so accurately when you have never seen one?”
Questions of this sort always take me by surprise. It is not the novelty of the question, for I have been asked it several times regarding my writing. What surprises me is the way those from the sighted community assume that just because we have never seen something, we do not know how to describe it.
My grandfather kept an apple orchard when I was very young. I remember when he would take me for walks within its shaded beauty. The grass rustled under my feet in a perpetual song, and a light breeze caused the branches around me to rustle. In the autumn, we would pick apples, and I would delight in their heady fragrance. I always pictured the trees as watchful sentries, guarding us as they conversed in whispers that we mere humans could not comprehend. Were they laughing at us or trying to make us feel welcome in their domain?
Sight is a gift, but so are our other senses. I sometimes think that the sighted world forgets this fact. They are so reliant on sight that they cannot comprehend that our other senses allow us to experience auditory and sensory pictures.
But, the confusion is nothing new. Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism when she was a child because she wrote a story for a friend that others claimed she couldn’t have written because it was too descriptive. While the story did have certain similarities to another author’s work, Helen, like all children, was subconsciously absorbing and reflecting back her pleasure in word pictures. She simply wanted to give a gift to a friend, so she told a story just as any writer tries to do. Georgina Kleege explores this aspect of Helen’s childhood with compelling beauty in Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller.
Two years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to travel out West with some family members. We visited several states and stopped at the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. Before going on the trip, someone asked me, “Why would you go out West? It’s a very visual place. Will you get anything out of the trip?” After reeling from the shock that someone in my family actually thought this way, I simply said, “I can’t see, but I will still have plenty of fun.” In some instances, it is better to say as little as possible.
And indeed, the trip was one of the finest I have ever experienced. Every park we visited had Braille brochures that described important landmarks. The Grand Canyon museum had a tactile map and a full-scale model of the park I could feel. I learned that the canyon was not a smooth hole with a sheer, smooth drop, but a vast world unto itself. The canyon walls were made of different textured, multi-colored rock formations. An employee of the museum spent several minutes letting me feel rocks taken from the canyon floor: igneous, sedimentary and other types of rock.
But, the highlight of the trip was standing at the canyon’s edge. The stillness pressed around me in a caressing embrace. I could feel the canyon’s majesty and vastness as if Creation were holding its breath in awe. By contrast, in Yellowstone National Park, I stood on a walkway overlooking a hot spring. The ground quaked beneath me, and I could feel the steam rising up to bathe my face. Creation sang here, an exultant melody of praise.
Writing descriptively involves using our imagination. We draw on our experiences and learn to incorporate all our senses into our writing. For me, I try to describe visual things, but I also try not to neglect other experiences. The sense of touch and of smell is particularly fun and powerful to write about. Reading frequently will help you hone your descriptive skills as well. The more an author can transport you to their world, the more your imagination will soar.
So, to answer the ladies question, I simply said, “I read a lot and use my other senses to help me visualize what my characters are experiencing.” A simple answer that, I am sure, could not adequately describe how I experience the world. But, through my writing, I hope to show that our world is a gift for all people, a place of beauty that we all can share.
About the Author
Meredith Leigh Burton was born on July 4, 1983. She attended the Tennessee School for the Blind and Middle Tennessee State University. Graduating in December of 2007 with a Bachelors’ of Arts Degree in English and theater, she then obtained her teaching certification for grades 7-12. She enjoys working with students, helping them to explore their own talents and learn self-expression through writing. She also enjoys helping with church activities. She resides in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Meredith is an author of young adult fantasy. Her recent release, Blind Beauty and Other Tales of Redemption, is an anthology of fairy tale retellings that seek to explore the familiar tales in unique ways. Most of her works feature disabled protagonists who are called upon to fight against evil. All her characters face difficult obstacles and must find strength to fight. Meredith hopes to show her readers that disabilities are really blessings, that we all have gifts and long to make a difference in the world.
To see and buy her book, visit https://www.amazon.com/Blind-Beauty-Other-Tales-Redemption/dp/172030128X/.