When The Earth Heaves A Sigh: A Craft Lesson In Description from Sigrid Undset

After I clicked save and sent off my sixty-second and final annotation for my MFA program, I swore I would never, ever write another. But here I am, seven years later, doing exactly that. FOR FUN. There’s a lot less pressure here though. For one, I don’t have to await the exacting critique of any brilliant mentor. But I’m grateful for all of those annotations and critiques—they made me a better reader, a reader who is also (almost) always a writer studying her craft.

In grad school, we got to choose most of the sixty-two books we read and wrote about, depending on our genre and specific interests. I mostly read travel writing because at that point in my life, all of my best stories and most transformative moments had happened while traveling, so that’s what I wanted to write about. I read some great travel writing during those two years and some pretty bad travel writing. I also wrote some good and not so good stuff of my own.

One thing I quickly learned about travel writing is the hazard of gratuitous description. This is true in any genre, but it’s a particularly easy pitfall when writing about a foreign or exotic place, a place you love and want to convince your reader to love as well. Every detail seems fascinating and vital, every adjective and adverb indispensable. Suddenly you’re swept away in a crush of unbridled scenery description—and pretty much nothing else. Like story or conflict or character development. Sort of just a long-winded postcard. So you have to be choosy, to kill your darlings—but great descriptions of place do more than paint a realistic picture. They multitask.  

Sigrid Undset could easily fall into the unrestrained description pit, writing about the natural splendor of her native Norway. I was captivated by her rich descriptive language from the outset, purely for its beauty: “On all sides gray domes, golden-flamed with lichen, loomed above the carpet of forest; and far off in the distance, toward the horizon, stood blue peaks with white glints of snow, seeming to merge with the grayish-blue and dazzling white summer clouds” (12).

This vivid description comes just a few pages into the novel’s first chapter, as young Kristin sets off with her father into the mountains. And here is where I first realized that Undset is up to something else in her lush descriptions. This sentence gives us a landscape to visualize, but it also sets the scene thematically. Details like golden-flamed, loomed, horizon, far off in the distance, merge with the clouds all contribute to the sense of vastness that Kristin discovers as she travels beyond her valley and village for the first time. Undset’s selection of detail creates an atmosphere the way music does in a film, putting the reader in the right mood for the story that will unfold. And at times, even putting us inside Kristin’s body and mind.

As I began to pay closer attention to Undset’s descriptions, I noticed something else. A good percentage of her chapters actually open with these types of multitasking landscape descriptions. The third section of The Wreath begins with the perfect example, as Kristin returns home to Jorundgaard from the convent after her family learns of her scandalous relationship with Erlend. It opens with another of Undset’s luscious descriptions of the landscape and season. Not all of Undset’s descriptions work double-time, but when they open a chapter, they nearly always relate directly to Kristin’s state of mind or hint at the direction the plot will turn.

So, in the first chapter of section three, Kristin comes home “during the loveliest time of spring,” consumed by her longing for Erlend:

Thin tendrils of water shone on the mountain slopes, which were shrouded in a blue mist day after day. The heat steamed and trembled over the land; the spears of grain hid the soil in the fields almost completely, and the grass in the meadows grew deep and shimmered like silk when the wind blew across it. There was a sweet scent over the groves and hills, and as soon as the sun went down, a strong, fresh, sharp fragrance of sap and young plants streamed forth; the earth seemed to heave a great sigh, languorous and refreshed (197).

Those mountains could have been wrapped instead of shrouded. That heat didn’t have to steam and tremble—there are plenty of other ways to describe heat. And a grassy meadow could just be a grassy meadow, but this one shimmers like silk. And with Undset’s pen, this earth heaves a sigh, and not just any sigh, but a languorous one. With that last flourish of personification, Undset has moved us from landscape to Kristin herself. Why just describe the scenery when the same words can also put the reader in a character’s lovesick body? The rest of the paragraph continues: “Trembling, Kristin remembered how Erlend had released her from his embrace. Every night she lay down, sick with longing, and each morning she awoke, sweating and exhausted from her own dreams” (197). In this masterful paragraph, Undset has made Kristin’s inner and outer landscape one.

Undset doesn’t always deliver such an immediate connection to her opening chapter description. Sometimes you have to wait for the reveal. Chapter three of this section, for example, begins with this chilly, foreboding description:

On this moonlit night the whole world was white. Wave after wave of white mountains arched beneath the bluish, washed-out sky with few stars. Even the shadows cast across the snowy surfaces by rounded summits and crests seemed strangely light and airy, for the moon was sailing so high. Down toward the valley the forest, laden white with snow and frost, stood enclosing the white slopes around the farms with intricate patterns of fences and buildings. But at the very bottom of the valley the shadows thickened into darkness (215).

This description is clearly not foreshadowing a happy plot turn. It sets the reader on edge—and wouldn’t you know it, by the end of the chapter, Erlend’s ex-mistress Eline is dead in a botched murder turned suicide. Undset’s chapter-opening descriptions have become something of a game for me, decoding them or anticipating whatever they may foretell for Kristin.

As a travel writer, I’m a sucker for good scene-setting, for evocative landscapes that transport you, for scrumptious nature writing that makes you shiver or sweat. But even the most stunning descriptions can grow tiresome, paragraphs you’re tempted to skip over to get back to the plot, unless there’s more at work than just a beautiful background. I don’t write fiction and I never plan to, but Undset has reinforced an important craft lesson. The next time I’m setting a scene, I’ll ask myself: How is this description contributing to the story? Could it do more? Could this be an Undset multitasking moment?

Kaitlin Barker Davis is a writer, traveler and mother from Portland, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Nowhere Magazine, Narratively, The Rumpus, CNF Sunday Short ReadsThe Best Women’s Travel Writing (Vol.12) and elsewhereShe has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University and is at work on her first book, a memoir-in-essays exploring uncharted territory in travel and motherhood. Find her on Instagram at @kaitlinbarkerdavis or online at kaitlinbarkerdavis.com.

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