By Lyssa Tall Anolik
Writing from the senses
In last month’s column, we explored physical sensation and movement to help characters come alive. Another dimension of that topic is the use of sensory detail – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Adding vivid sensory information to your writing connects readers more deeply to the places and experiences you’re writing about. As an example, compare the following two passages. Which gives you the strongest sense of being in that moment?
It’s raining in Victoria. I walk into the museum lobby. There are some tall totem poles.
October rain falls in slick sheets on the island city of Victoria. My boots splash through rivulets on the sidewalk … . I step into a … lobby with vaulted ceiling and lines of people waiting to purchase tickets. Three totem poles, carved from cedar logs, tower over the visitors. They’re worn with chipped paint and jagged gashes, etched by wind, rain, and time … . Lines in the shapes of eyes, beaks, and wings still stand out in black, turquoise, and white… .
In the first example, we don’t learn much about what this place looks like or the emotional impact it has on the author. In the second example, however – an excerpt from my essay, “Eyes within Eyes”* – the visual and imagined details strongly define a sense of place and the awe it instilled in me.
Sensory details make writing more intimate and satisfying for readers by inviting them fully into a moment. Here are two more examples:
The ooey-gooey sweetness and graham cracker crunch exploded in my mouth,” instead of, “I ate a s’mores.
My chest swelled with the heart-pounding booms and screaming violin strains in the second movement,” instead of, “We went to a rousing symphony.
We could discuss this topic further, but the best way to get the hang of using sensory details is to practice doing it. In that spirit, I offer you some of my favorite writing exercises and prompts this month.
Practicing sensory observation
May, with its busy birds, bursting flowers and changeable weather is an ideal time of year to step outside and listen, smell, see and touch a plethora of things. Here’s a simple exercise to help develop greater awareness of each of your senses. You can do this anywhere – your yard, a park, a street corner, etc. It helps to bring a childlike curiosity and sense of discovery with you. In fact, this is a fun project for kids as well as adults!
- Bring a notebook and pen and find a place to stand or sit comfortably.
- Close your eyes and come into an awareness of your breath.
- Listen carefully to all the sounds around you, the loud ones as well as the subtle ones.
- Record a list of the sounds in your notebook. (You can open your eyes now!)
- Tune in to your sense of smell: how many different scents can you identify – pleasant and unpleasant?
- Try to describe them in your notebook.
- Now begin cataloguing all that you see.
- Look more closely at one area; observe minute lines, patterns and miniature landscapes.
- Describe them in your notebook.
- Next, begin to touch things. What do they feel like?
- Describe the textures. You can even draw some sketches if you like.
You can do this exercise once, or multiple times, in different places, or in the same place at different times of day or in different weather. Sometimes I like to sit in one place for half an hour or more and watch how things change. Different birds or people come in and out of view, and I start to notice things I missed before: more nuanced sounds and smells, a tiny beetle laboring over a blade of grass, etc.
Recovering sensory details from memory
You can also use a version of the exercise above as a brief visualization technique to help you recover sensory details in memories, or to imagine details if you can’t remember them. The three prompts below can be used with or without the visualization that follows.
Prompts: (10 – 15 minutes each, or longer if you choose):
A meal I remember …
A song I remember …
A place I remember …
- Choose one of the prompts above, or a place/experience from a piece of writing in progress.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breath for a few moments.
- Now place yourself inside that memory.
- Notice where you are. What kind of place are you in?
- What do you see around you?
- What do you hear?
- What do you smell?
- Are you touching anything? What does it feel like?
- If you’re eating, what are the array of tastes and textures of your food?
- What emotions do you experience? How do they manifest as physical sensations in your body?
- When you’re ready, open your eyes and begin freewriting … .
This visualization can be used at any point in your writing where you want to go deeper into the physical sensations of a place or experience.
As you practice layering sensory information into your writing, I encourage you, as always, to begin noticing sensory detail in the books you’re reading. If you have a favorite example of strong sensory writing, please consider sharing the title in a “Comment” below.** I wish you all a sensuous journey this May!
* From “Eyes within Eyes: At the Royal B.C. Museum,” by Lyssa Tall Anolik, in Drash: A Northwest Mosaic, Vol. 6, 2012.
** My personal favorite resource on sensory writing is Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. It will leave you reeling!
This is VoiceCatcher’s seventh article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.