If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until it gets so ugly you can hardly bear to look at it.
A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.
Nothing good shone out of Mrs. Twit’s face.
- The Twits, by Raold Dahl, 1980
I love that passage for so many reasons.
The first is the detail:
the wonky nose, crooked mouth,
the double-chin and the stick-out teeth.
The second is the surprise that comes in the last line. It’s great writing, and it’s all based on observation. As an adult I also know from experience that the observation is true.
Don’t believe me? Watch people. It’s an eye-opener.
This week we are still working on those visual observational skills.
Remember: Writers Notice Things
Here’s the exercise for your notebook this week.
Pick a person and describe their face in detail. A magazine won’t do for this. It needs to be someone you know so that you can observe them speaking, laughing, and just being.
You do not need to sit in front of them with a notebook. Observe the person, or call upon a memory, then go and write about them. (Artists: draw first, then write!)
You do not need to identify this person unless you want to.
Notice these things: hairline, shape of the nose, eyebrows, ears, mouth, teeth, the way they laugh and, most importantly, the eyes. See where it takes you.
Here’s my sample - taken from a memory of my grandfather. I have the memory because I wrote about it several times when I was a teenager. You write something long enough and it has a way of living inside you.
The light glints off his glasses as he tilts his head, the dark brown only hidden for a moment. His glasses are big, a leftover style from the 1980s, for he is not a fashionplate. Any glasses would do for him, including the Blue Blockers he and Grammy bought from a street vendor - sporting them proud. The hair is growing out of his ears now, a constant joke among our family. He threatens the ear hair may join his nose hair.
He laughs again and mops his head with his handkerchief, the one Grandma launders each and every week. His laughter fills up our room and brings life to all of us. How often has he laughed and then accidentally crushed the chicken eggs in his pocket? Each time is funnier than the last.
His face full of deep wrinkles – ones that show a lifetime of living. He is proud of them. His hands? Thick fingers, not quite straight anymore, that have rolled and kneaded dough for years, lifted sacks of flour and babies. They’ve lost a little muscle now, his wedding ring spinning on his finger, but it will never pass over his arthritic knuckle again. It will stay there forever. Another lifetime achievement earned.