Learn from a Writing Virtuoso

Overall, it’s a pretty sweet gig, but there’s one great misfortune about being in college: the lack of time to read for pleasure. Due to mountains of schoolwork, a great book sits half-read and dust covered on my bookshelf. It’s called Telegraph Avenue, and it’s written by Michael Chabon. The novel follows two lovable characters, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, as they struggle to keep their record store, Brokeland Records, alive in the face of big-box competition down the road. Incidentally, Archie and Nat are passionate about jazz. Chabon’s writing subtly pays homage to their musical taste: it brims with imaginative and highly descriptive images. Archie’s introduction on the first page of novel sets the tone nicely.

“Moonfaced, mountainous, and moderately stoned, Archy Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby, wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his resemblance to Gamera, the giant mutant flying tortoise of Japanese cinema. He had the kid tucked up under his left arm as, with his free right hand, he worked through the eighth of fifteen crates from the Benezra estate, the records in crate number 8 favoring, like Archy, the belly meat of jazz, salty and well-marbled with funk.”

As noted in last week’s jazz prompt, jazz music is all about improvisation. A jazz song builds and expands. Chabon does the same thing with his writing. Incorporating rich imagery and pop-culture references (often to music and kung-fu movies), his descriptions move in surprising directions and make for especially vivid prose.

Using the above paragraph as an example, imitate Chabon’s descriptive style. Pick an object, a place, a character, or even yourself, and describe it using layered images that expand on each other to reveal a thorough portrait of you or your subject. Try to incorporate references to the world outside you or your subject–focus on things that interest you. If you get stuck, read over the paragraph again, paying special attention to the way in which Chabon weaves seemingly disparate images and references into a unified and rich description.