I remember beginning a book one sunny morning when I was a girl. Sitting on the couch beneath a window that opened onto a California day, all brilliant blues and yellows. The writer set her story in wintertime. Bleak, snowy, and cold as February in St. Petersburg. As the afternoon wore on, I read and read, caught up in the story and life of the protagonist. Finally, somewhere near sunset, I finished the story and with a satisfied sigh, closed the book. To this day I can't recall the name of the book or the author's name, but I can remember the surprise I felt when I looked out my window after I closed that book and guess what? No snow! The day was a bright and gorgeous as any California day. I had been so transported by the author's skillful use of sensory descriptions that I was there, in that place in the snow, right along with the characters.
"Readers don't want to merely read about your characters and the world you've created," wrote Los Angeles novelist Janet Fitch, "they want to smell it, touch it and taste it."
Our job as writers is to create a world as rich in sensory stimuli as our own world. Maybe more so, because who is really aware of our sensory world these days? It's through the five senses that we ground our writing in the concrete - the sight, smell, sound, taste, and feel of it. From this physical world, our writing can reach out from the page and into the sensory perceptions of the reader and, if we've done a good job of it, the piece comes to life.
Now, as you read this, pause to take a sensory inventory of the place where you are. Look around you and notice what you see, how things look. Colors, shapes, textures. The way the light falls against your desk, the shadows on your hands.
Breathe in and say what you smell. Say it out loud. Left-over coffee. 60-watt light bulb, on too long, a faint burning smell. Daffodils wilting in the vase on the bookshelf, that murky, swampy smell of three-day old bouquet water.
Next, listen to the sounds of your space. Computer humming, patient, steady with its occasional chewing of bytes, swallowing. Airplane taking off, grumbling against the night sky. A 737, you think. Maybe bound for Las Vegas, Friday night sounds aboard - reckless laughter and high hopes.
Feel the chair beneath your bottom, the keys under the soft pads of your fingers, smooth and slick, the little nubs on the k and d keys like tiny road bumps to let you know you're home safe.
Pick up that cup of cold coffee and notice the heft of it against your thumb. Trails of coffee dried in the muddy shape of Illinois up near the curve where your lip presses against the cup's edge. It tastes like… that love affair you ended earlier in the day: bitter and discarded.
Writing from the senses provides a richness, a layering to description. But often, we don't enter the sense directly; we approach it obliquely. One thing tastes like another smells, a sound is a color, an emotion feels like something looks. This effect of using one sense to describe another is called synesthesia. A brassy blonde, a buttery sun, the violet hour, the saxophone sound of midnight, a mole like a raisin, the taste of yesterday: yellowed and brittle.
This effect works so well for writers because it offers up multiple sense perceptions in one word. A buttery sun for example, gives us color, texture, taste, and smell. Same with brassy. (And while brassy blonde works for my example, it's too clichéd to use any other way. So, too, might be the combination of yellowed and brittle.) (What's a cliché? someone asks. Novelist and short story writer Kate Braverman tells her students, "For you, it's anything that's ever been used before." She doesn't smile when she says it either.) Back to the examples. Notice how a mood is created by "the violet hour," and "the saxophone sound of midnight."
Sense is also a way to enter memory. Who can say "the smell of cookies baking" that everyone present doesn't get a memory, intact and complete of some time, some where from our individual pasts. Smell is the one sense that can evoke complete memories: the whole setting, the people who were present, what they were doing, the conversations or other sounds, the emotional tone of the scene. Think of Proust and his madeleines.
Begin with one sense - the smell of wild lilacs in the back country -- and soon you will be far into the memory of the time you lived on that acreage 35 miles out of town where you and your husband planted avocado trees along the hillside and remodeled an old farmhouse. You'll be knee-deep in the dusty smell of the hill as you cleared away brush, your boot heel crashing through the fragile burrow of a rabbit's hole, the air hot and dry as an old woman's skin. You keep writing and find yourself describing the way the sun burnished his hair dark copper, like an old coin and that some men need space around them like the roots of the trees you're planting. The Fuerte and the Haas and the Bacon with its deep green leaves and trunk thick as your wrist.
Here's an exercise to try in your notebook: Begin writing practice sessions with "I remember … " exercises, filling in the I remember with a sense. For example, "I remember tasting …" and "I remember hearing…" then follow the trail of the memory expanding into a 18 or 22 minute free-writing exercise.
Do this with each of your senses. Or fill a page with short three- or four-sentence memories, beginning each subsequent "I remember…" immediately after you've completed the previous, without stopping to think or trying to remember. Just let one image follow the other, like rain falling on leaves. After you've filled a page with these short journeys, reread what you've written and choose one that resonates with you and expand it, filling in the edges and layering the center.
Imaginings, fantasy, the psychological stuff of good writing, all these can be entered through the senses. Use sense words to portray the emotions and attitudes of your characters and the tone and timbre of your piece. A sunrise can be as faded as the dying roses on the far edge of the garden, or as lively and fresh as the pink skin of a baby. It can be slippery or phony - a dishonest yellow, like oleomargarine -- heavy or light, bright or harsh.
Here's another exercise: Do a paragraph describing a room so that it's bright and hopeful, optimistic. Now do a second paragraph describing that same scene from a dull, depressing, or pessimistic perspective. Try others: threatening, peaceful, exciting, warm and friendly, edgy and a little dangerous. Each time accessing mood or tone through the sensory.
Diane Ackerman wrote a stunning book, A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES, (Random House, 1990) that takes the reader through all the facets and possibilities of our senses. She has a poet's voice, a researcher's thoroughness, a storyteller's sense of the dramatic and enough information, lore, history and observation to satisfy all our senses. It's worth a read. And a permanent place on your bookshelf. I use it for inspiration and evocation.
Your senses will never let you down when you're circling around your writing, looking for a place to begin. And when you want to bring a piece to life, you need only to turn to your own senses. There you will find riches.