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Shades of Meaning

Autumn foliage prompts memoir on my writing craft

For the past two days I've been trying to think of the exact words to describe the last of the yellowish-brownish leaves on my quince, the goldishness of my maple tree. Attempts flare and fall splat in my journal. None is just right. I go about my daily round, but like a loyal hound dog, my writerly brain stays on task.

By now perhaps you think, This woman has too much time on her hands. Who cares if her adjectives for a few leaves are spot on?

I do.

Because words are what I use to share observations and feelings with you, with others, with posterity. Probing for hours or days for the exact word to make connections matters to me. This is why my readers tell me, "I was right there with you!" Because I carefully choose shades of words in my vocabulary, the palette from which I create. Words for colors, especially, matter a lot.

My enchantment with color began when I was about 8 years old, a time well before color TV. Back in the 1950s, movies were black and white unless specifically advertised as "Technicolor." The brightest thing in my life was the school bus yellow border of National Geographic magazine.

Then the Christmas I was in third grade, Santa left a box of 64 Crayolas -- 64! -- with a built-in sharpener and a coloring book of Victorian Christmas scenes. Ladies in voluminous sweeping coats, poke bonnets, and muffs skated gracefully across the page. So did I, gliding in color. If I rubbed the crayon on the page with firm pressure, the clothes became velvet.

Even by age 8, I had had run-ins with cheap crayons: the gritty ones that didn't flow and the waxy ones that lay down little color. But the Christmas crayons! I could sharpen them to tiny points perfect for coloring lips or fingernails or tiny flowers. Or the ribbons on pointe shoes. Such control. My parents cautioned against sharpening too often and wasting the crayon. I paused before each twist, considering. With 64 crayons, I had control. I had autonomy over my color choices. I had freedom of expression. Best yet, my green and yellow box full of rainbows empowered me to overcome the white-out of winter.

Another Christmas Santa left a kit of colored pencils and color by number drawings. I don't remember the brand, but I've been searching for them ever since. Those pencil pigments spread smooth as butter: luscious turquoise, sepia, and burnt sienna. I learned new words and new colors, again in the dead of winter. One of the landscapes depicted seaside in St. Augustine, "the oldest city in America." Little me had thought that was Boston!

When I was a bit older, I found a paint by number set with real oil paints under the Christmas tree. The oils smelled greasy and strange; the turpentine for brush cleaning, sharp and unpleasant. Ever obedient, I followed the numbering precisely, daubing sticky paint even when I thought the numbers on the canvas were wrong. Purple shadows in the snow? Impossible! Everyone knows snow is white!

And when the painting was done, I marveled that the landscape looked real -- and began to notice violet snow shadows in my own yard. My wise mother never intervened. She simply provided materials, space, and gentle encouragement. Discovery learning at its finest.

Perhaps if I'd had art lesson as a kid or even in high school or college, I might not be a wordsmith today. But I was a solitary child and heavy-duty reader. The printed word beguiled me and fired my imagination even more than colors. I had no art classes until I was 50.

Yet my childhood artistic endeavors taught me to see, really see. And that's the beginning of writing. Remember the first word in the Dick and Jane reader?


Writers never stop looking, observing, Yes we need a word palette shaded just so; however, words alone cannot capture what dwells in our hearts and minds. First we must see, clearly and closely. The words will follow.

By the way, the color words I sought finally surfaced: Amber. Saffron. Topaz. What do you see? ###


  • Describe a childhood pastime that still delights you in adulthood.

  • What's your favorite color? Why?

  • Describe a person who recognized and fostered your childhood talents

Photo credit: Pencils by Lucas George Wendt on Unsplash. ###

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