Friday, June 21, 2013

Too Good For Words

Story prompt: put this image into words... in dialogue 
Planetary nebulae are the remains of sun-like stars that have reached the end of their red giant stage, losing most of their atmosphere into space to form some of the most beautiful nebula in the Milky Way. (Courtesy: NASA, ESA, HEIC Heritage Collection)

One of my erstwhile hobbies is reading NDEs, or Near-Death Experiences. The people who write these books come from a variety of circumstances and are not all writers, obviously.

That would be weird.

Some of them hire writers to tell their stories and others do it themselves, feeling called to share what happened to them regardless of previous writing experience. Many of these books read like journals.

But every single one shares a common element: the too good for words problem.

Read a book about a near-death experience and you will invariably reach a part where the author tries to describe the Supreme Consciousness, God, Angels, the Gates of Heaven, or Pure Love. And to a person, these writers feel unequipped to undertake such a phenomenal task. There are no words. It's too beautiful for words. The limitations of our language make it impossible to convey.

"Regardless, it is impossible for me to adequately describe what I saw and what I felt. When I try to recount my experiences now, the description feels very pale. I feel as though I am trying to describe a three-dimensional experience while living in a two-dimensional world. The appropriate words, descriptions, and concepts don't even exist in our current language." - Dr. Mary C. Neal

While we may not all have near-death experiences, I think all writers have the same challenge when trying to write about one of the most basic human experiences: love. 

Also difficult to describe with full honors: fire, lightning, a smile. Frankly, these things are all too good for words.

But I guess love is the most difficult. In fact, my favorite writers haven't endeavored to describe love at all. They've simply illustrated it through a story about ordinary people and the choices they make.

What do you do, though, if you're actually writing about the supernatural? 

How would you describe a light above the brightness of the sun... without comparing it to the sun? It's a little like trying to describe the taste of salt to someone who has never tasted it before. We can always ask Becca and Angela to make a new entry for Supernatural in their Settings Thesaurus. But barring that, let's see how a few of our dead-and-risen friends managed to illustrate the unimaginable: 

  • "Their edges were blurred, as each spiritual being was dazzling and radiant. Their presence engulfed all of my senses, as though I could see, hear, feel, smell, and taste them all at once. Their brilliance was both blinding and invigorating." - Mary C. Neal, M.D. in To Heaven and Back: The True Story of a Doctor's Extraordinary Walk with God
  • "Suddenly, I was enveloped in this brilliant golden light. The light was more brilliant than the light emanating from the sun, many times more powerful and radiant than the sun itself. Yet, I was not blinded by it nor was I burned by it. Instead, the light was a source of energy that embraced my being." - Ned Dougherty in Fast Lane to Heaven
  • "... as I approached, I physically absorbed its radiance and felt the pure, complete, and utterly unconditional absolute love that emanated from the hall. It was the most beautiful and alluring thing I had ever seen or experienced. I knew with a profound certainty that it represented the last branch point of life, the gate through which each human being must pass." - Mary C. Neal, M.D. in To Heaven and Back: The True Story of a Doctor's Extraordinary Walk with God
  • "It was as if I were being born into a larger world, and the universe itself was like a giant cosmic womb...." - Eben Alexander, M.D. in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
  • "A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above, and I wondered if the winged beings were producing it. Again thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise--that if the joy didn't come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it. The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but that doesn't get you wet." - Eben Alexander, M.D. in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
  • "Seeing and hearing were not separate in this place where I now was. I could hear the visual beauty of the silvery bodies of those scintillating beings above, and I could see the surging, joyful perfection of what they sang. It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it--without joining with it in some mysterious way." - Eben Alexander, M.D. in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
  • "...found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch black as it was, it was also brimming over with light: a light that seemed to come from a brilliant orb that I now sensed near me. An orb that was living and almost solid, as the songs of the angel beings had been.... but any descriptive word falls short." - Eben Alexander, M.D. in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
  • "I wasn't sure when the light in the room began to change; suddenly I was aware that it was brighter, a lot brighter, than it had been. I whirled to look at the night-light on the bedside table. Surely a single 15-watt bulb couldn't turn out that much light? I stared in astonishment as the brightness increased, coming from nowhere, seeming to shine everywhere at once. All the light bulbs in the ward couldn't give off that much light. All the bulbs in the world couldn't! It was impossibly bright: it was like a million welders' lamps all blazing at once.... now I saw that it was not a light but a Man who had entered the room, or rather, a Man made out of light, though this seemed no more possible to my mind than the incredible intensity of the brightness that made up His form.... Above all, with that same mysterious inner certainty, I knew that this Man loved me. Far more even than power, what emanated from this Presence was unconditional love. An astonishing love. A love beyond my wildest imagining. This love knew every unlovable thing about me...and accepted and loved me just the same." - George G. Ritchie with Elizabeth Sherrill in Return from Tomorrow
  • "'What about the insurance money coming when I'm seventy?' The words were out, in this strange realm where communication took place by thought instead of speech, before I could call them back. A few months ago I had taken out the standard life insurance policy offered to service men; in some subconscious part of me had I believed this piece of paper guaranteed life itself? If I'd suspected before that there was mirth in the Presence beside me, now I was sure of it: the brightness seemed to vibrate and shimmer with a kind of holy laughter--not at me and my silliness, not a mocking laughter, but a mirth that seemed to say that in spite of all error and tragedy, joy was more lasting still." - George G. Ritchie with Elizabeth Sherrill in Return from Tomorrow

What do you think? Did these descriptions make you feel there with them? Did they do justice to whatever it was they were describing? Or were they just nebulous hyperbole wrapped in enigma with a plethora of 'biggest's and 'brightest's? Could you do better?

These people all wrote what they say really happened to them, but as a science-fiction and fantasy writer I'm very interested in their words as examples of descriptive writing. I'm reminded of the artful way Jennifer Armentrout described her beings of light in the Lux series.

What works of fiction (or non-fiction) do you consult when faced with a description challenge?


  1. I've never really thought of this--I have struggled with describing "ghostly" things in my first book, but mainly because I was going for something unique as well as easy to understand.

    Love that last one--it seems so human to continue to worry about stuff, even in a perfect place.

    1. I think I do like the last ones the best because they bring things back to reality. When you compare something otherworldly to something we can relate to, it's always better for comprehension. I remember reading about Kafka's The Metamorphosis, an analysis of the very specific and sparse details of the room that made something unbelievable seem believable.

      Putting in glimpses of ordinary life definitely make the unbelievable feel more real. It's the Bella-Edward rule, if you will. For every sparkling icon of chivalry you have to have a plain nerd girl who loves Clair de Lune to keep the reader grounded.

  2. It's really hard not to write with a whole ton of purple when describing things like this. In fiction, especially Christian fiction, the onus is on the writer to find a new metaphor, a way of thinking about God that hasn't already been used to limpness. Try less adjectives and more tactile variations I guess? Yeah it's tough!


Add your awesome here: