Editor’s note: This is our second edition of Shop Class, a new Story Craft feature. The goal is to break down the work that goes into creating stories, and offer prompts or small suggestions to help you practice the craft that becomes art.
Several years ago, I was on a reporting assignment to the interior of Antarctica. I expected to be there overnight – just long enough to interview an international dogsled expedition crew as it stopped for resupply. But there was a broken airplane, some stolen fuel and …long story short, I was stranded for 17 days with 17 men – the British-Canadian base camp staff, an American accountant and dog handler, a French film crew, an Italian-Austrian mountain climbing party and an Australian TV news anchor – as we waited for rescue.
This was the dawn of internet communication, and Antarctica was as far off the grid as off can get. I could barely contact my newsroom by sattelite phone, and had no way to file live stories back to my newspaper (or, even today, post a link to the stories I did write for the St. Paul Pioneer Press). I didn’t even know how or when I’d get off the ice. But given the cost and duration of my trip, I knew that I would need to write a show-stopper. This with but a few scant interviews in my notebook, all growing stale.
In desperation – that maternal wonder of many creative moments – I decided to gather atmosphere. Maybe I could give my readers a sense of place. Put them in the story and help them understand conditions faced by the expedition crew. To do that, I would have to describe cold and snow to winter-proud Minnesotans, who consider themselves quite expert on those subjects.
With little else to do, I took to studying the landscape. The endless and featureless and white, white, white landscape.
Or so it seemed at first. But over the days, all manner of shapes and colors emerged. The wind sculpted the hard-pack snow into washboards and waves and drifts – a feature called sastrugi – and in other places scooped it into shallow rivers. The surface could be as slick as glass or as gritty as sandpaper. Shadows danced as the 24-hour sun looped round and round and round, in the Antarctica summer, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
I would have to describe cold and snow to winter-proud Minnesotans…
And what color! Not just white, but blinding white and dull white and mindless white. Beneath the whites were blooms of gray, yellow, pink, mint and blue, like backwashes in watercolor. In some places, the ice was so dense that the light refracted it to neon blue. (At the few marked airstrips on the continent, and in the far north Arctic, planes land on blue ice runways.)
I could offer a similar approach on how I reported the feeling of cold: The different types of pain when the wind hit my face; the gasp of shock whenever I used the three-sided ice-block outhouse; the number of steps it took during my daily walk before I could feel my toes inside my Sorels – from numb, clumsy blocks to vague tingles to burning hot to happy wiggles.
But for now, let’s stick with the sense of sight, and specifically with the practice of seeing color. Then seeing beyond the color described by a generic word to the range of colors within that word. Then seeing even further, to the meaning – the metaphor and the memory – of color. This kind of reporting might not fit most of your journalism. But the more you stretch beyond basic fact-gathering, the more you want to be aware of the creative tools of craft, and use them to edge your writing into art.
Alice Steinbach used color as a tool throughout her 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning story for the Baltimore Sun, about a blind boy named Calvin. It remains a go-to piece for several reasons I wrote about for Storyboard in 2012. In it, Steinbach returns again and again to color ‑ the color of Calvin’s eyes, which cannot see, and the wondrous world of emotional colors he sees through those sightless eyes. This is the opening paragraph:
First, the eyes: They are large and blue, a light, opaque blue, the color of a robin’s egg. And if, on a sunny spring day, you look straight into these eyes—eyes that cannot look back at you—the sharp, April light turns them pale, like the thin blue of a high, cloudless sky.
In different ways, freelancer Chris Solomon uses color in his work, as he glides between the literal (factual) and the metaphorical (meaning). Check out his 2017 High Country News story about the McNeil River grizzly sanctuary in Alaska, where he takes us to “the cappcuccino foam of eddies” on the river and introduces us to a male grizzly “the color of a $4 chocolate bar.”
I see the world through pretty pragmatic eyes, and don’t presume to write with the creative reach of a Steinbach or a Solomon. But any writer can learn to use creative tools.
To practice seeing color, pick something in your immediate surroundings:
- The lake at a friend’s cabin, as you’re sitting in an Adirondack chair sipping iced tea (or gin and tonic) in the early evening.
- The feathers on the crow perched on the gutter of your roof, preening in the sun.
- The cherries in a bowl on your kitchen counter.
- The hair of a child seated in front of you on the airplane.
- The eyes of your lover when s/he is sad, happy, angry, worried, enthralled.
It doesn’t matter what you’re looking at. It matters how you are looking, and what you let yourself see. Look not just with your eyes but with your emotion and memory. Look past the literal color in front of you – blue, black, red, blonde, green – to analogy, simile, metaphor.
It doesn’t matter what you’re looking at. It matters how you are looking, and what you let yourself see.
Now make a list describing the color (or colors) you see in as many ways as you can without ever using a color word.
Don’t worry about whether your descriptions or references make sense. Or whether, at this point, you could imagine using them in a piece of journalism. This is reporting and writing practice. And as with any practice – shooting 100 free throws, playing scales, sketching a building – you’re working particular muscles or skill sets that, once put together, support mastery.
A group of fact-obsessed science writers did this last January in Tucson. They roamed around the walled courtyard of the Aibnb where we were gathered, looking at the stones, trees, shrubs and grasses. Here are some of the colors they saw in the desert winter:
- Palaminos and tabby cats
- Old-lady support hose
- Tarnished pennies
- Burnt marshmallows
- My grandmother’s braid
- An old man’s teeth
- Week-old bruises
We did the same exercise recently with writers at a bold, creative magazine in Bucharest. First we looked at the afternoon sky which was, that day, a pleasant but bland drift of blues and whites. Despite that challenge – nothing dramatic to inspire us – here is what some of them saw:
- Snowy peaks, warm valleys
- Serenity so abstract and distant that I will never reach it
- Weary promise of a lazy summer
- Sky so bland it had to ask the clouds to speak for it
- Whipped-cream sprinkles on IKEA bedsheets
- The shirt of a demanding principal
- The baby dress my grandmother bought me and I never got to wear because I had already grown out of that size
- Ink from a 20-year-old notebook
- Old soap forgotten in a drawer
- My mother, in her wedding dress, eating cotton candy
Then we really got into it. The ceilings and walls of the magazine’s newsroom were badly stained from a flood in the apartment above. The magazine staff had endured several days of deafening dryer fans, which never completely undid the smell of must.
I didn’t have to live with the smell, or think about repainting the walls, so was intrigued by the patterns of the stains. To me, they held hints of old Tuscany, or Wisconsin cornfields in November. But the magazine staff looked at the walls with disgust, and described feelings of ruin and rot and waste. That translated to colors like this:
- Sweaty days, broken wash machine
- Open wound; abandoned house
- White cotton shirt forgotten in a closet for years
- The Pepsi stain on my beige sofa that my ex-boyfriend made while watching TV
- Rotten porridge
- Aunt’s sheets, shortly after her funeral
- Map of Bucharest after the earthquake
- Old corrugated fence
- Soiled nappies
- Wet sand
- Peeled potatoes that dad forgot in the frying oil
- Sun-dried woods yearning for rain
- Dusty roads in an Egyptian town
- The skin of a little boy who dared to climb the biggest tree and got hurt