The road climbs upward toward the mountains, cuts through the tunnel, and carries me past the cozy hillside communities that remind me of the tiny Christmas Villages we used to build around our miniature train set. Each passing hillside, valley, river, brings me closer to her, Siena, my father’s sister, my favorite relative. I’m her favorite too, or at least she makes me feel that way.
Her beauty is ageless and natural, like the mountains that surround her. When I was young, she wore a habit, long and black, that camouflaged her tiny frame. A complicated, starched white wimple surrounded her uncomplicated, soft Irish face. When she sat close to me, I’d finger the strand of rosary beads hanging from her waist. When she walked, they clacked a holy sound.
Siena’s beauty, so much more than her mirror reflection, is deeply embedded in the purpose of her life. “We weren’t created to judge,” she often says, “that’s God’s job; we were created to love.” Her immense capacity for compassion embraces the most needy, least likely and is always free of judgement—of me, of others or most remarkably, of herself. I long to possess such self-acceptance. I remember the day I came out to her. I remember because she was my first leap of faith.
I asked her once if she had any regrets about becoming a nun. She answered quickly “Not regrets really, but I do miss having children.” She fixed her gentle blue eyes on me, smiled, and lightly touched my hand. “That’s why you’re so important to me, Eileen.”
I wrote this descriptive passage as an assignment in my first memoir class in 2019. The prompt read: describe a person I know well in 250-300 words (I don’t remember the exact number but something micro) and include as many as possible of the following details (I don’t remember all of them): facial and physical features; e.g., skin tone, eye color/shape, hair color/length, height/build, age; relationship to author, physical surroundings, character traits, style of dress, personality quirks, typical sayings or quotes. The sample should read like a passage from a memoir or essay.
“How many words did you say,” I asked?
Challenges like this are invaluable for a fledgling writer. I’m not sure which was more difficult for me—staying within the word limit or crafting those words to sound like prose rather than a laundry list.
I, like many memoirists, struggle with character descriptions because, in non-fiction, the characters are real people, and in memoir those characters are part of the writer’s life. Memoirists worry about the repercussions of offending. This writing exercise was helpful because the glossary of elements provided by the instructor helped me focus on concrete traits and details in a more clinical, less personal way. A writer-mentor of mine suggested I sit in a cafe or train station and create a list of physical traits of the strangers passing by. The anonymity would free me to focus on what I see, devoid of personal connection or judgement. Later I could refer to that bank of descriptive words and phrases when describing friends or relatives.
Character description is an act of creation. Faceless names on the page gradually take shape as if being formed out of clay. They develop bodies, facial features, hair, gestures. The reader steps closer. The character takes on a personality, with opinions and feelings. The reader relates. Together the living character and the connected reader enter the story.