Category Archive: Writer’s block

Launch a Description the way Anthony Burgess Does

Get inspiration from unexpected places

You have that new page shining empty in front of you. You feel that moment when an invisible hand grips your throat: “Gawd,” you gasp, “what will I ever write?”

If that’s you (or even if it’s not), try some exercises to loosen up the muses a bit.

Anthony Burgess, asked by a popular magazine about his writing rituals and methods, had this to say:

“I’ll tell you a thing that will shock you. What I often do nowadays when I have to, say, describe a room, is to take a page of a dictionary, any page at all, and see if with the words suggested by that one page in the dictionary I can build up a room, build up a scene. I even did it in a novel I wrote called MF. There’s a description of a hotel vestibule whose properties are derived from Page 167 in R.J. Wilkinson’s Malay-English Dictionary. Nobody has noticed. As most things in life are arbitrary anyway, you’re really doing what nature does. I do recommend it to young writers.”

 

That gave me a start, so of course I immediately ran for a dictionary. I found American Heritage too technical, with words like mescaline and metagalaxy, and settled on Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, which I have here in front of me. The print is big, so I will use two pages, 1208-1209. I see words like responsibility, restraint, restrict and resting place. To me these suggest not only an idea for a setting, but for character, too.
Here goes!
Leonard had to take responsibility for his own desk. His mom would brook no excuses. Should she find a pencil or rubber band out of place, she would sweep everything to the floor with a flourish. He aligned his pencil cups, books and diary with the discipline of a soldier. He tried to keep these items to a minimum, to ensure himself a much-needed resting place for his elbows.
You could say my effort was a failure: I included only two of the words I selected. I would have included restraint, as well, but switched to discipline. However, a glance at these dry dictionary pages, seen in a new light with a new purpose, gave life to a setting and a character I didn’t know I had in me. The selection of words immediately brought to mind a tired, repressed individual, and I tried to bring that out in the description of his environment. This handful of lines will not be getting me a Pulitzer ever, but the exercise gave me a springboard and a direction with virtually no effort. And it’s fun. Try it!