How would you describe the sun?
Most immediate answers are trite. And that’s because the sun is an ancient presence in our lives, which means most people in the history of language have reported about it, exhausting whole swathes of linguistic options.
In writing, the weather is a bit like that sex scene: it needs to be mentioned, but unless you have something fresh to contribute, you’re better off not dwelling on the subject—everyone knows what it looks like and is quite satisfied if you state the temperature and the likelihood of rain.
Taking that into account, I am appreciative of writers who offer even a single neat and novel way to say it’s sunny. And when I find a writer who does it page after page, like Martín Adán, seemingly only writing about the sun without repeating himself, I rush to learn how.
Martín Adán (1908 – 1985) was a Peruvian poet who published his only novel, The Cardboard House, when he was twenty years old. The book meanders through page-long vignettes of life in Lima surrounded by sky, sea, and city. Adán’s work in general is described as hermetic, metaphysical, deep, full of symbolic metaphors. That may be so, but from a superficial literary standpoint—were there such a thing—in Cardboard House, he excels at lyrical descriptions of the commonplace seaside scenes.
(I once wrote a brief post quoting him.)
Although the credit for the content goes to Adán, the credit for the beautiful English rendition goes to Katherine Silver.
Effective, innovative descriptions are hard to craft. They take practice (practice, practice, practice) and an ear developed through reading: that’s the general advice, and I’m yet to come across a book that teaches you how it’s done. But the learning process can be sped up—like when coining new meld-compounds—by analysing, and then mimicking, the tactics employed by successful examples.
The elementary descriptive figures of speech are simile, metaphor, and personification. Tips for identifying them:
- Like, as if, the way that signal a simile.
- A to be that identifies things which aren’t the same signals a metaphor; likewise verbs that wouldn’t normally be associated with the subject.
- Verbs that usually apply to humans or animals signal personification.
Sometimes good writing relies on quoins—the quirky, unexpected words that elevate the ordinary to the interesting.
Here are the quotes; the underlining is mine and indicates what I considered imaginative.
Q1: At noon the sun shines down liquid and leaden like a yellow splash of water during old-time carnival.
Analysis: The verb is ordinary, the simile become interesting at the quoin.
Writing tip: Think where else you would find the property you wish to describe (yellow sun), bring that into the picture.
Q2: The sun struggles to free its rays from the branches into which it has fallen captive. The sun — a rare, hard, golden, lanky coleopteran.
Analysis: The verb indicates a personification. The rays are described as being attached to the body of the sun, making the sun-rays-animal interesting. The quoin coleopteran transforms the sun into a beetle, and a lanky one at that, to fit with the long rays. Kooky.
Tip: Break down the object you’re describing into constituent parts (sun, rays), then describe the positioning of those parts with respect to the surroundings.
Q3:The color of the sun settles on the windowpanes from outside, like a cloud of pale translucent butterflies.
Analysis: The verb indicates a metaphor. A visual element, colour, is described as having the ability to settle on a surface, which is the crossing of senses: vision to touch. This is synaesthesia. If you’ve swallowed the sentence that far, it’s not surprising that colour is then compared to a cloud of butterflies.
Tip: Take the property you wish to describe (colour of the sun), determine which sense it belongs to, then compare it to a different sense.
Q4: It is two o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun is still halfway across the sky, stuck in a stubborn and foolish affinity for the earth.
Analysis: A metaphorical description of location, nice but useless without the personifying, opinionated quoins stubborn and foolish.
Tip: Take the property you wish to describe (location of the sun), view it on a grander scale (planetary), imbue it with psychological slant.
Q5: The paving stones — undergoing noontime heliotherapy, recumbent, facing the sun.
Analysis: A sophisticated personification. No verb (scesis onomaton), but the em dash stands in for to be. The quoins are crucial, especially the sophisticated heliotherapy, which contrasts the crudeness of paving stones.
Tip: Personify a simple object by applying complex language. If pushed to the extreme results in comedy or sarcasm.
~ Chromatic interlude ~
Q6: Winter afternoons were white; the luminous and piercing whiteness of salt crystals, and the sun therein was a silvery sun with a chipped circumference. But in March there was a Monday with a pink afternoon…
After the whiteness of winter, I fell in love with that Monday in March. Not sunset, not sunrise, but afternoon—the whole lounging length of siesta, pink. I see pink champagne, rose-tinted glasses, flamingoes, and timelessness borne of impossible memories.
Don’t you want to know it?
Pink is also exotic, scientifically speaking, because it is not a spectral colour. This means that no single wavelength of light produces the violence of pure barbie pink: it can only be obtained as a superposition.
Q7: In the desert, the very same sun that is merely a jovial and idle Barranco sun shining on these rose gardens becomes Libyan, Saharan; this matchmaking sun without a family is a bachelor, a gossipmonger from all five continents; a bluffer; this gallant sun that offers his arm to forsaken aunties on esplanades…
Analysis: An extended personification. Whereas stubborn or foolish in Q4, does get applied to animals on a regular basis, matchmaking, gossipmonger, or arm-offering does not.
Tip: Identify your target object (sun) with a person as specifically as possible (gentleman), then write with that person in mind.
Q8: Twenty little tailless mongrel dogs (large ears; the hanging ones are of sheepskin, the erect ones of felt) that range in color from the waxen hue of fresh straw to the bluing on steel, rush along behind one large purebred dog with a tail and a mundane, uncouth, opulent face . . . The dogs glide along on short, agile limbs. The sun turns all the dogs into gold ingots.
Analysis: Everything prior to the last sentence, even prior to the last word, is beautiful but not as inventive. There’s only a single step between the ordinary metaphor
the sun turns the dogs’ hair into gold,
and the slightly more imaginative
the sun turns the dogs into gold.
But there’s a whole leap between that and the addition of ingots.
Perhaps it is a matter of the English translation that has the alliterative o-s and g-s in dog, gold, ingots, but to me that last word makes all the difference.
Tip: Bear in mind that a synecdoche can be “undone”.
A synecdoche takes a whole and refers to it by a part, or takes a part and refers to it as a whole. Therefore, a synecdoche is always one step away from the actual meaning—you have to unpack it before understanding it. For example, writing dogs to mean dogs’ hair, takes a specific part, lops off the specific hair and keeps the whole dogs.
Now consider gold. When you say something is turned into gold, what do you actually mean: a gold statue, a river of gold, a gold coin? I suspect most of us mean the Midas touch to solid gold—we do not clarify because that synecdoche has become convention. Clarifying (that you mean ingots) would be “undoing” the synecdoche; it’s unconventional and hence surprising. That is the leap between gold and gold ingots.
The final quote nuzzles up to the beautiful extremes of lyrical language (it only mentions the sun, but it brings back the dogs).
Q9: An ice cream vendor’s trumpet drew attention to a nocturnal howling of dogs, symphony of tin and moon, rip-roaring from the beginning, a rip that exposed black, canine palates bristling with taste buds as hard as calluses. If their singing could be musically annotated, it would have to be done on a temperature scale, on graph paper, with a dotted line, with odd numbers. Musical skeleton. Forty-two degrees Fahrenheit: a fatal fever. A whirlwind of light and dust rises to the sun from a nearby field surrounded by thick adobe walls.
The paragraph builds towards the crescendo of the fatal fever before cooling off with a whirlwind.
Would that I had written that paragraph.
The most enchanting images resemble the surprises of dreams. Their juxtapositions cohere, trancelike, weaving the loose fringes of speech figures with unexpected words and ideas. Breaking down the images analytically is possible, learning their tricks is necessary, but the jointing magic—as always—has to be your own.