by Michael Neff

You are a writer. It is your job to faithfully explore and note the world of your fiction. You have here the perfect means for initiating this process: the PROSE DESCRIPTION QUESTIONNAIRE. When it comes to writing descriptive narrative, or simply generating conceptual thought regarding a specific object/person/place/event/condition in the novel, the questionnaire below is indispensable.


Things exist in the mind as hazy memory, and in reality as measurable matter; things also exist in a place and time, betwixt and between, in dark and light. Things affect human beings in different ways. Imagine the difference between an object that is foreign to you and one that is familiar and sentimental—a child's toy, for  example. Even an object simple as a woman's dress possesses angles and facets you might never have imagined or thought to notice (the results below are the result of brainstorming the dress with each of these questions, thus creating pages of notes later culled down and edited.). The PDQ can thus be effectively used by you to develop imagery, structure, concepts and metaphors for just about anything. 

Approach each question separately, and use it as a means of brainstorming thought. Write whatever comes to mind, freely associate, and follow the path of association. Get it all down, however much, then return and edit it later, culling forth the best bits and impressions.  This process created five pages of notes on the dress below, culled to the following.

Thoughts on the dress:

Q: What of appearance? How to describe?
A: at a distance, a small cloud, one that the sun will soon dissolve; like a shadow of leaf on the bottom of a pond; like striking a match in a night-black and windowless room, the flame thereof made nervous by breath; a soft attraction with feet to carry it, arms to straighten it; sometimes a bell or a letter of alphabet between the trees, only for a moment.

Q: Where does it occur?
A: Between the peaks of the Sierras; on the banks of the Ohio; in my eyes; on a lake at night, between a short pine and a high moon; inside us; between Topeka and Winnemucca, inside my car, in my living room beside "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on television.

Q: Does it have an edge, a geometry, a form?
A: amorphous, fluid flutter, as if wash on the line, three hours of cloud at once.

Q: What is the origin?
A: deriving from the spume and spray of ancient worm, coaxed from the inner tunnels of worm; woven by furrowed hands, brown hands, belonging to those who dream of magazines and the privileged godling women who live there in pink sherbert worlds of beach and sea.

Q: A mass, texture? What is the composition?
A: light as light, as breath, white-soft; woven angel hair, etc.

Q: What does it stand in contrast too? How?
A: to the shadows of the valley, to the sky, to my gloom, to her discouragement, to the scowls and dark thoughts of those who envy it, to the storm that makes it more radiant, to the sun that embraces it and carries it below the earth at dusk.

Q: How does it bend and warp and effect the space about it?
A: it obscures/hides the space, quiets it, as a giant step of dawn that dissolves the grey, pushes other space to the corner of the eye where it is quickly forgotten, blurring, dilution; or an energizing of the environs instead.

Q: What does it do? What is the effect?
A: it yields to wind, colors her with youth, bestows her with a vivacity she could never have had otherwise, sheathes her in confidence, sprays outward, blooms,  bell-shaped; fuses a memory just long enough to be harbinger of a long regret, an enduring bitterness and despair later - whenever it should resurface.

Q: What is the poetic purpose of it?
A: to be flowed upon by shadows of leaves, a crumble of brown and sun-yellow moving across it; to create loss where no loss existed, to create a yearn for youth where it was once forgotten, to recall a time of happiness once unable to be recalled.

Q: What are it's advantages and disadvantages, psychological and physical?
A: It foster illusions which take hold and germinate, expand to become mythos, assure a future tragedy of realization of a truth of age and life more mundane and mean than could ever have been thought possible.

Q: What is the ripple effect, i.e., what causal chain does it set into motion?
A: The envy sets in motion a long term resentment which later manifests itself in pettiness or hatred. The wonder and symbolism causes an elation that soon finds the owner, on that particular day, lifting face to the sun and sky, giving thanks for life.

Q: Who does it affect?
A: Emile and the gang couldn‘t stop talking about it. They made undulating, downward motions with their hands, as if tracing a fall of water over stones. Ms. Eliza, well, you could only say that she was shocked by it. Beth Tillman searched through every store from Towson to Bellaville to find one just like it. The entire town quaked and thrilled and blustered to the shape of the dress, to the song of the dress.

Q: It evolves to become? What is the climax/denouement? What condition, form will it assume at this time?
A: snagged a bit at a time on dried winter, scattered in wasted lots like cold paper, scrubbed in black grease and squeezed by painful hands to a tiny knot; frayed to a hundred threads and snagging knots, to litter, to confetti, to jaundiced shreds like dying leaves, earthbound; singular and perspiring as memory from the skin, evaporating to the steam of dumbed beings, loosed to the wind, the memory breaking apart bit by bit or else dislodged into the blood, released as energy, a radioactive half-life decay of dress.