Describing the Indescribable

As a writer, I have the unenviable task of describing the indescribable.

It’s funny, really. I use words all the time. I am more careful about my word usage than most people. When I want to write about something, I usually make sure to use the correct words. I take seriously what Mark Twain once said: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Yet here I am, admitting that sometimes there are things that I as a writer can never capture perfectly, no matter how careful my word usage is.

To illustrate my point, let me tell you a story about a night a year or two ago that left a profound impression on me and how I view the world and, more importantly, how I view writing:

I was at my pastor’s house, in his backyard, along with several other people. I don’t remember what we were all there for exactly, but I do remember the way my pastor chose to illustrate the message he was trying to deliver to us: He set a large pile of dead, dried wood on fire.

This was no small campfire, meant to roast hotdogs or melt s’mores over. This was a blazing flame, made all the more impressive by the wind billowing it around, causing it to reach out like a hungry monster. It was thankfully controlled, but while everyone else stood around talking about other things, I stood apart from the group, staring into the flames, forgetting about the Styrofoam cup full of sweet tea in my hand. And, while it was a cold night, I had to keep my distance lest I get burned.

Even as I soaked in the experience, I thought, How could I ever hope to capture this mighty flame in mere words? How could anyone hope to describe this thing in a way that does justice to its majesty?

Remember, this fire was manmade. My pastor made it using a bunch of dead wood and plants in his backyard. Had this fire been something that occurred naturally within nature, I imagine it would have been even more majestic and thus, even more indescribable.

That night taught me that the written word, as powerful and formidable as it is, is limited. There is a difference, in other words, between someone telling you about a great fire and actually witnessing the fire itself.

What do you think about this? Are there some things that are better experienced than described? If you’re an artist, have you ever had trouble conveying ideas to your audience through whatever medium you use?

-Tim

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