Katabatick Ekphrasis

In tandem with the Throwback Thursday parageography posts, I’ve decided to also include a number of the assignments from the course. These are, I’ve found, particularly good creative writing assignments. The first was (as this post is titled) the “Katabatick Ekphrasis,” which means “underground description.” As Doc Parker put in a footnote on said assignment:

“Description-that-has-to-do-with-a-descent…” “Describing in detail an underground locale of surpassing strangeness, or eeriness, or unquotidianity that you have, well, experienced somewhere, somehow.”

The assignment was to be 1000 words.

Per the assignment handout:

Basic Specifications:

1. This the Course’s first and only RealWorld item. In conception—and, it is hope, in execution—it’s not basically a creative assignment: Don’t Make Something Up.

2. A quick duedate. But this is also diagnostic, and Your P & G needs info quickly.

3. You are to describe a place Underground—not, by any means, a usual place, or everyday place where normal life normally goes on in a normal fashion. No, not that. Treat an exceptional spot, one encountered only rarely in the usual business of living.

4. On the other hand, it should be A Place You Are Familiar With, Somehow. Somewhere that you have not read about, or not merely read about, but seen. The old English-teacher ukase—”Write about things you know, dear”—applies here.

5. Describe it in considerable Detail. Your first 750 words are to be spent in telling, with searching precision, What The Place Looks Like. [Diagrams and other visual aids are acceptable and even encouraged, but will not affect the Word Count.]

6. After the description comes what we shall call The Fourth Page—the last 250 words—where you may spread yourself and tell how and why this place is unusual—arcane, horrifying, comforting, challenging, eerie, or whatever, but unusual. Here association and attitude count for a great deal.

7. Some suggestions for places you might know and use: Basement; Mineshaft; Subway; Cave; Sewer; Heating Tunnel; Bankvault; Rootcellar; Hell—but only if you’ve been there.


“Please, Sir, why and how are we doing this?” A logical question. Okay; first the Whys:

1. Successful ParaGeography is not merely a pileup, a listing, an agglomeration of improbable sites. It depends for meaningful achievement on the thorough conception and realization of those sites, on MicroCreation as well as Macro-Creation. The Critical Effusion will treat of a Macro; this is to be your first Micro.

2. Not wholly Your Very Own, of course. It’s to be an RW place. Later on, especially in the minicreation, you will find yourself building a small site. But the technique of description—and especially description without narrative—is something that has to be developed and refined. Hence this assignment, which seems a rather large description of what may be a rather small place.

Which leads us, logically enough, to the Hows:

1. As specified, 750 words on description; then 250 on assessment. You may find the first part somewhat of a strain, especially if the Underground Locale is [a] very small or [b] very large. Well, [a] is probably the more intriguing option: it means you’ll have to dig down (so to speak), there. But [b] has its thorny bits, too: how to get it all in? Of course, Your Guide is elastic about upper limits—but he has his little foibles, and he has to read all of these, and you wouldn’t want to infuriate him right off the bat, now, would you? So, there’ll be picking and choosing and aiming for the significant details, &c., &c.

2. Witness a query from a member of the class of—?when? 1988?: “I once was lost in some caves, and I used to play in a sewer pipe. Which should I pick for this assignment?” My initial reaction was the Caves; the Pipe seemed quite challenging. As it turned out, this student, and one other, chose the sewer pipe…with lovely [if that’s the word] results.

3. TFP—the last quarter of the CatEc, The Fourth Page as might be [=250 words], where you set forth the outré nature of your spot—should be The Fun Part. Fear of the Dark? Lovecraftian Things in an unspeakable interior? Trolls that slaver Underneath? The buried antiquity of earlier ages? Dig down, deep, and see what you come up with. And enjoy doing it. That’s an order…

4. “But Sir!“—a polite member of the class, in whose mouth butter would not melt, might cry—”How, oh, How am I to describe this place without moving someone (myself, perhaps) through it? Certainly one of the most efficient ways to describe a locale it to tell what an observer sees in the order in which she/he sees it, no?” “Er, yes,” I would reply. “But wouldn’t that be, uh, narrative, Sir?” To which I can only say, “Damn your eyes, you’re right, but Don’t Make It a STORY, hear?” Curse the Younger Generation away.

5. Oh. He would like the paper typed, or wordprocessed, or…anyway, NOT handwritten, if this can possibly be avoided. He grows old; his eyesight dims; he is withal a pitiful figure who deserves your every indulgence in his sad and sore travail. [Sob.]

These instructions are followed by numerous examples that I will not reproduce here; they are too long to retype. I will, however, note that my description of my grandparents’ basement in their house in Alaska earned me an “A.” Along with these lovely remarks:

“I rather expected plainness before, then the exuberance. But the similes, the occasional pawky phrases, lift the first part out of that. You might stress the snowsuits just a tad more. Or are you flattering me by assuming I’d pick up on their non-existence in Texas? Very skillful. Keep it up.”

It was the start of a beautiful mentorship.

*Note that P & G was Doc’s way of referring to himself as “Proctor & Guide” as we traversed parageographical lands, both established and still forming.

Now, I direct my fellow writers to go forth and do their own Katabatick Ekphrasis exercise! Useful on days when you feel otherwise stuck or unmotivated.

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2 thoughts on “Katabatick Ekphrasis”

    1. Glad you’re enjoying it! Unfortunately, Dr. Parker passed away a few years ago. I’m dedicated to keeping his legacy alive, though!

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