Writing Exercise: Descriptive Passages

I want to share another assignment I wrote from a Creative Travel Writing Course that I completed in March.

In one particular module, I learned about crafting effective descriptive passages. Have you ever read or found yourself writing long and dry descriptions of places from travel accounts? If not done well, these moments can render themselves dry, or simply become a “laundry list” of features rather than truly bringing your reader into the scene. It’s a significant and sometimes difficult feat when it comes to travel writing. Recreating beautiful scenery for those who haven’t seen it first-hand requires significant creativity.

The question of objectivity versus subjectivity comes into play too. It’s easy to unconsciously adapt into a subversive view when describing a particular place. I’ve been quite familiar with the infamous “bias” debate, thanks to my academic background in history.

For this module, I was asked first to look at a picture and observe what I see – the facts only – no descriptions. Unfortunately, I don’t have the actual picture, but I chose to describe this scene:

  • A side-street in an old city, or the old part of a big city. It resembles that of Havana, or somewhere in South America
  • Cobblestone streets, yellow/beige buildings with tiny balconies, boards by the windows
  • The street was moderately busy, passersby in no rush, minding their day-to-day business
  • A man standing outside a storefront, two men sitting down looking relaxed
  • Two women near the front of the photo, walking side-by-side

Afterwards, I wrote a descriptive passage of this place, factoring in subjective emotion. I had a choice of either to frame this description around a traveller who is excited and in awe of their surroundings or a tired, grumpy traveller. Because, not everyone – even myself – will immediately fall in love with their destination upon arrival. Although I had initially gravitated to the first choice, I decided to try something new and be the grumpy traveller instead.

Here is what I wrote:

I can feel beads of sweat trickling down my face and back. I haven’t eaten since the flight and my stomach is growling. I’ve been walking at least over two kilometres from the train station. The humidity makes me feel like I’m trapped in a small room with no air holes to breathe. My panting and the loud tapping of my suitcase’s wheels over the cobblestones makes passersby turn their heads. Supposedly, my hotel is on this street. There’s nothing but crumbling balconies with entangled wire and cracks running up the facades. An old woman brandishes a dirty towel above me. I duck, hoping it wouldn’t fall over my head.

Perhaps I can ask for directions inside this store, although I can’t make out the inscriptions on the red sign out front. A man leaning against the window blows fetid cigarette fumes in my face, burning my eyes and making me cough. I grind my teeth over the cacophony of voices that overstimulate my ears – the cackling of two gossiping women, a trolley full of seafood and vegetables clanging over a pothole in the road. A fish slips out, thrashing fiercely against the pavement, until the vendor firmly grasps its neck and tosses it onto a pile that squirms beneath its net. I veer cautiously to the right as I pass two men sitting in by a heap of green fencing, leaning back and eyeing my movement. They exchange loud jabs and laughter in a language I can’t understand. I retreat underneath the tree shade to escape their curious gazes. I sit on my suitcase, exhale and wipe the sweat from my forehead. I pull out my phone, but realize that there’s no Wi-Fi signal.

The point of this exercise was to see how our own unique views of the world determines our writing. What makes this interesting is how different this scene would have played out had I chosen to write as a happy traveller. Sometimes, it’s also important to step back and be present in our surroundings. This allows us to examine our own personal biases.

I’d be curious to know what kind of image pops up in your mind after reading this.


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