Have you been reading the “Draft” series, online at The New York Times‘ Opinionator? Every two weeks, I post a simple essay on one aspect of the writing craft. At the end of my essay on nouns and adjectives, I mentioned that one of the most difficult things to describe is the sky. It’s hard to avoid clichés and to see in a fresh way.
I invited readers to to try their hands at a little descriptive writing, and many readers posted their own skyscapes. I commented on some of the images I found especially striking in a follow-up post.
Some readers emailed me directly, sending their favorite passages from literature. I wanted to share some of them, as well as another I’ve kept in my back pocket ever since first reading it in a New Yorker short story in 2008.
Sara, from Scotland, writes:
The best-ever description of a sky? It has to be the one from the opening paragraph to Justine (the first book in the Alexandria Quartet) by Lawrence Durrell: “The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes.…”
Melanie, from New Jersey adds:
“Dylan Thomas once wrote ‘starless and Bible-black,’ [which] has stuck in my memory for decades.”
James, from Massachusetts, sends this:
From Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill: “It was the kind of barbarously sticky American afternoon that made me yearn for the shadows case by scooting summer clouds in northern Europe, yearn even for those days when you play cricket wearing two sweaters under a cold sky patched here and there by a blue tatter—enough to make a sailor’s pants, as my mother used to say.”
And one of my favorites:
I have reread these lines from “Friendly Fire,” by Tessa Hadley, many times, always surprised by the images: “They sat there for a few minutes, too tired to move, giving the car time to recover, talking about their Christmas shopping, who they’d bought for, what they still had to get. More than half the short winter’s day had passed while they were in the warehouse. The sky was a blue so pale that it was almost no color; wooded bluffs loomed above them, beyond the industrial estate, marking the edge of the city. The sun had dropped behind the bluffs already, so that the tops of the bare trees showed up finely spiky, like hair or fur, against a yellow flow of light from somewhere out of sight. While they waited, their breath began to fog up the car windows.”
Please feel free to post your favorite images of the sky in the comments below.