Tag Archives: appeals to the senses

If I Could Talk I’d Tell You…

Sometimes what is really worth saying is what is most difficult to say.  Perhaps anyone can tell a story, but it’s the unsayable that charges the tale with compelling if not conflicting emotion.  Writers write because they have something within that is urging to be said; the challenge, though (and the reason why I think not just anyone can tell a good story), is articulating what we feel so strongly when there may be no direct means of doing so.  This is why people use metaphor and simile or play off the sounds of words themselves to recreate an experience that is otherwise unrelatable.

The Prompt:

To help us say the unsayable, page 23 of Room to Write asks us to “choose a feeling, idea, or experience that you haven’t been able to express to anyone no matter how hard or often you have tried.”  In trying to convey this, we are encouraged to use any of the following writing strategies:

1. Comparison – compare the sensation to a similar feeling that it reminds us of;

2. Juxtaposition – describe conflicting aspects of the sensation, side by side; and/or,

3. Rhythm – structure the words/syntax of our sentences to audibly mimic the sensation.

Response:

At times, it felt my eyes would propel from their sockets, or splash out of them with the popping burst of a water balloon breaking against blades of grass…as if I might literally ‘cry my eyes out.’  My heart felt it might split open my chest cavity like a crab leg gripped in the toothed metal of a lobster cracker; holding my heart back from rupture, however, was an opposing anvil of pressure at my sternum, compressing my breast as though I’d plunged into ever deeper waters.  The dulling of other senses was likewise like treading below the water’s surface, looking up to see the pool of light above while deliberately sinking myself toward what was cool and black, obscuring my perception of life as it actually was through the dark and refracting depths and clogging my ears to reason.  At other times, it was like being strained through a sieve, dispersing the atoms of my being into the broader environment, a melding into the background as I soaked into the carpeting or evaporated into the walls, becoming more and more transparent from my own sight.  A water-logged cadaver deadened by apathy alternating with the quick-pulsing, hyperventilating, lurching engine of emotion that, either way, spun me off the road and left me paralyzed in the ditch, tangled within the weeds where no one could see or hear me.  This is what depression felt like.

Reflection:

Yeesh, I feel like gulping for air after trying to re-feel the sensation of a dark, momentary blip in my life.  Thank goodness this experience was temporary, triggered by a few too many life changes that occurred at once—good changes overall, granted, but changes nonetheless that entailed adjustment and sacrifice.  Ah, the bittersweetness of life…but as I learned in Istanbul’s bazaars last autumn, it is good for their elaborately woven Turkish carpets to be trodden on, as it only makes the knots stronger.  And thus we all strengthen into something of more beauty just when we may want to pity ourselves for being stepped on.

In any case, while I don’t have any issues talking about it (I prefer to, actually, as being able to speak of it in the past tense makes me revel in the happiness of my present and optimism for my future), I never feel I can adequately get the experience across.  And I can’t say for certain I’ve done so here, nor really approached it in the way that Bonni Goldberg has asked; all I can say is that I wrote what came to me most readily, and I know I could rewrite it through various other lenses.

I didn’t deliberately attempt rhythm, but if I want to grasp for sound effects, I detect some unintended assonance and alliteration in the penultimate sentence:  the repeated “aw” sound in “water-logged” that draws out the words like the slowed feeling of trying to run under water, the interspersed “a” and “eh” sounds in “cadaver deadened by apathy” that sound listless and whiney, then the “d” sound in “cadaver deadened” that falls with dull thuds.  The action words with strong, snapping consonants and short “i” sounds that follow (“quickpulsing, hyperventilating”) seem to then speed up the sentence a bit.  At least that’s my take on it…or maybe I’m just making this all up as I go along 😉  But seriously, though, although my little analysis here might be stretching because I didn’t try to strategically embed devices like this, I point out these examples just to show how the sound of language could be used for certain effects, and obviously more effectively when done on purpose.  I think this is at least the 2nd time I’ve bypassed rhythm as a writing technique in my responses, so I really need to start challenging myself more in this area.

But enough about me.  How might you say the unsayable?


Walking the Talk

My previous post addressed beginnings of stories/novels, yet before I get to endings, it is worthwhile to comment on the dialogue that might not only span all the in-between but, in fact, could very well be our means of beginning and ending if utilized effectively.  Yet again, I am drawing from the specific advice proffered at the writing conference I attended last weekend (sponsored by the organization Room to Write), lessons we may have learned time and again through various sources, but that I found particularly insightful when distilled during this focused workshop.

To begin with, dialogue is essential to a successful novel because it:

– teaches us about characters and what they might be feeling the second they open their mouths through tone, accent, dialect, and word choice.

– conveys information

– moves the story forward and quickens its pace

– gives immediacy/brings readers in by appealing to senses of sight and sound

– creates white space, which gives us a chance to visually “breathe”

To maintain this significant impact of dialogue, we must therefore keep the following in mind:

– When using dialogue to convey information that we do not through narration, keep the information provided brief.  Otherwise, it may come across as more than would be natural in a conversation.

– Voices engaged in dialogue need to be distinguished from one another—

* Test this distinction by reading dialogue out loud.

* Consider overdoing sense of voice (e.g., through dialect or word choice), as you can always go back and take it away.  Spelling phonetically or using curse words to add color to a character’s voice can be effective in distinguishing him/her, yet it can also be distracting from what they’re actually saying.

* With this previous point in mind, be aware that while dialogue more closely resembles natural speech, even in the best of books it is not exactly the same as we would really talk…and that’s okay.  Again, it may be due to avoiding distractions in exact pronunciation or errors in grammatical syntax (we don’t obey convention 100% when we talk vs. write).  Yet I also feel it may relate to the artistry of language that we might infuse through our characters’ speech—think of the TV series Mad Men…those characters certainly do not speak like ordinary people, but there is something clean and lyrical in everything they say that is a joy to listen to and truly raises the program to a higher plane of thought and reflection.

* Not every line of dialogue needs to be tagged.  This is more easily done, though, when only 2 characters are involved and it’s easier for the reader to track who is speaking the alternating lines.

* Regarding tags, you are better off using plain and simple “said.”  Also, avoid adverbs—whatever description you could provide of how a character says something should already come across through the dialogue itself.

– Incorporate the “business” that goes with the dialogue. (In the excerpt we read from Ian Rankin’s Let it Bleed, for example, one character prepared a cup of coffee for the other as they conversed.)  In doing so, you will:

* help the reader “see” the scene by bringing in movement and showing versus telling through the characters’ actions

* reinforce the reality of the situation, make it more authentic to real life

So, talking of talking, I’ll stop my yammering on this topic.  It is a critical one, though, to writing an effective, engaging, and believable piece, so bear these pointers in mind while also just having fun with bringing your characters to life when you grant them the gift of individual voice.


Touch No Evil

The Prompt:

In wrapping up this series of writing exercises on sensory detail, today’s challenge (page 18, Room to Write) is to write through texture.  Again, we have 3 different approaches we can take on this:

1.  List textures;

2.  Describe the textures of a person, place, or thing;

3.  Reflect on how the textures help us find understanding.

I think I’m going to interweave #2 and 3 for this one, at least at the outset and just go wherever that takes me.

Response:

To lull myself to sleep at night, I often rub my fingers along the edges of my pillow case; it’s a habit I’ve had since childhood, one that I developed as a substitute for massage (I was very used to nightly back rubs from my mom).  So when I repeat this ritual as an adult, the tickling sensation of that thin fabric whispers kisses on my fingertips to assure me everything will be okay.  On the occasional night when I’m really sunken into a mode of regression, I’ll lay there in bed snugglng my panda bear, a gift from my parents when I was five.  Holding her close, I’ll run a thumb over the course, pebbly fur, matted down and hardened from decades of hugging.  Now and then I’ll still find a soft spot, a silken smooth patch that was not prone to friction and reminds me of the fluffy fuzz that once went up my nose and tickled my nostril hairs (and sometimes caused that sharp, almost stinging, muscle-constricting anticipation of a sneeze) when I sniffed the bear to find my own scent.  I run a finger over the rugged, scratched surface of its eye wondering when I would’ve let my guard down to have ever let harm come to there.  I feel how flattened and condensed the stuffing has become, the reason why this panda had actually grown an inch once on the family growth chart.  I roll onto my stomach and worry that the weight of my arm is putting the panda into a strangle hold as I feel its unyielding lump beneath, and as I turn my head the opposite way, the slippery straightness of my fine strands of hair slide across my cheek in feathery protection.  I nestle my face into the moon-cooled part of the pillow that I hadn’t yet laid on and sense its soft, suede-like fibers brush against my skin, which, newly cleansed and burning from an invigorating sandy scrub, prickles a bit at the thin fuzziness just skimming its surface, almost velvety after multiple washings.  I feel the thick raised bands of its pattern press into my cheek to stamp its existence into my damp epidermis.  Awareness of the tepid, downy pressure  of my breath upon the back of my hand distracts me from sleep, so I move my arm outwards, outstretched until it bumps dully into the warm life-force emanating from my husband’s back.  In short, vertical sweeps, my hand rubs up and down against his t-shirt, which has become flimsier and less abrasive to the touch after continuous wear has relaxed its threads.  Through the fabric, my fingers feel a twinkling of bristles as tiny needles of hair penetrate through.  Sensing a shift of the mattress below me with a tug of the sheet above me, I realize I’m waking him when not meaning to and so withdraw my hand to the top of the duvet and let it sink into cloudy puffiness as a brief escape of air from between the feathers huffs around either side of my wrist.  I lose concentration of the regulation of my breathing as, limb by limb, my body numbs against these textures and my mind delivers me into anesthetized dreams.

Reflection:

Huh.  So I didn’t really know where I was going when I started out.  At first I thought I might be listing different textures that have come to have meaning in my life and then reflect on that, yet when the pillowcase and panda that both connote safety and reassurance to me (in representing childhood nostalgia) also both coincide with bedtime, I found myself just running with that image in my mind.

I didn’t realize it until the very end how much the sense of touch comes into play at that time of night when it’s quieter and darker, and, therefore, sounds and sights are more subtle.  Touch logically comes to the forefront, then, as we try to situate ourselves in comfort conducive to fading from consciousness.   A challenge was searching for different adjectives to describe what basically boils down to a bunch of different fabrics–the textures within a bed are not all that dynamic, so I kept wanting to describe things as “soft” all the time.  On rereading, I notice how I used a visual word (“twinkling”) to describe a sensation of touch, and while that may be cheating, I don’t know, it works for me because there’s a sort of motion and sound that go with that word that lets me understand how it would touch against my fingers.  I don’t even know if what I just said makes sense, but I am realizing that the boundaries between the categories of sensory words can be crossed time to time, as the different senses so often work together to elicit a shared sensation, so that leaves us open to all the more creativity in how we spin our language into the thread of a story line.


Hear No Evil

The Prompt:

Continuing on with my previous posts related to the senses, today’s writing prompt (page 17 of Room to Write) delves into sound.  Writers benefit from being good listeners, so Bonni Goldberg asks us to comment on what we hear in any one of 3 ways:

1.   Listing  sounds we love or hate;

2.  Describing the sounds we hear around us now; or,

3.  Developing a dialogue that employs purposeful rhythm in accentuating the subject and tone of the conversation.

I think I’m going to dapple in the first two for now, though I’d like to challenge myself with the third sometime soon and will update this when I do so.

Response:

1.  Sounds I love: the melodic vocals of the song birds that wake me and sing me lullabies in the summer.  The crisp Pffftt when someone opens a can of soda.  A genuine belly laugh gurgled from a niece or nephew.  The satisfying crackle of a fire, or cereal just submerged in milk.  The fluid ripples of a harp.  The melancholy of piano music.  The tap-tapping of corpulent rain drops on the rooftop.  A tongue clicking…once.  The ting of wind chimes and crystal.  Ocean waves and the way their foam sizzles through the pebbles.  Sounds I hate: TV commercials that blare louder than the shows they invade.  The dull thuds of neighbors existing above and around me in apartment buildings.  Car alarms.  Phones and classroom bells ringing.  Cheesy R&B vocals and the ootz-ootz-ootz of dance club music.  Buzzers.  Car horns.  The creaking of my desk chair.  Human voices babbling too loudly on public transportation.  Belches, and the laughter that follows them.

2.  What I hear now: Echoes of children’s voices undulate on the air as it carries their afternoon playtime imaginings across the square.  The steady pulse of a car or building alarm cuts through persistently with a piercing beep that makes my left eardrum throb and contract.  The hum and buzz of street traffic ebbs and flows with the Doppler Effect as cars and lorries approach and flee, the road too stop-and-go to allow continuous whirring and vrooming to meld into the whooshing roar of a waterfall that could let me remotely imagine I am amidst and one with nature.  The upstairs neighbors return with thumping and scuffling on carpeted stairs and a child’s commentary on the school day before jangling keys swing and collide as one of their own unlocks the door with a heavy click muted by friction.  The thumping continues overhead, plodding about more swiftly with a child finding freedom back in her home quarters and is soon accompanied by scuffs and skids and creaks.  All the while, I hear the clacking of the keyboard keys beneath my fingers as they yield and either stomp out letters in quick succession like the notes of a piano concerto (clicking and space-barring to a waltz, perhaps) or pause with the dreaded silence of a writer’s hesitation…a silence that is not quiet, but containing the overlapping tracks of sound previously described; a silence that a writer fortunately does not always hear when seeking out the soundscape of her storyworld.

Reflection:

As I attempt to quiet all the sounds and voices, real and imagined, swarming in my mind so that I can concentrate on reading for a while, I’ll close with this little tribute to onomatopoeia:


Taste No Evil

The Prompt:

The title gives it away, no?  Continuing to explore the senses through our writing, today’s prompt (page 16 of Room to Write) is about describing what surrounds us through our sense of taste.

Response:

Just took a sip of water, which tasted of cool, filtered nothing until leaving a plastic aftertaste at the tip of my tongue.  If I licked this crystal water goblet, it might taste of my bland lip balm caked at its rim.  If I ran my tongue along the smooth glassy surface of this desk, it might taste of bitter dust with a hint of metallic at the edges.  If I stuffed my sock monkey that sits on the desk into my mouth, its dry fibers might have a dried oatmeal, shredded wheat quality, much like the linen-covered journal resting beside it, though the latter might have an added hint of salt or chemical from its black dye.  The napkin in front of my keyboard would dissolve on my tongue almost too quickly to detect an unexpected sweetness of bran.  As I gaze through a pane of glass at the potted plants on the window sill, I imagine snapping into their thick, rubbery leaves to yield a moist burst of lettuce and aloe, crisp and awakening on the tongue and almost slightly acidic like citrus fruit.  As I further pretend to mash my face down into the soil, I taste the gritty mineral-rich dirt and strain in trying to swallow down the rusted-penny tinged taste of dried and brittle clay.  Looking further on to the leafless branches across the road, I sink my teeth in and snap off a twig to savor its dirt-peppered smoky oakiness that slides into the somewhat salted juices of my saliva (the taste-buds of which are still saturated with the essence of chili pepper and coconut curry) as I gnaw on its end.

Reflection:

And I think that’s where I’ll conclude, as I’ve developed a weird hunch that a lot of things within my field of vision right now might end up tasting alike—though definitely not like chicken, as everything else seems to :). I wanted to resist reflecting on any of the meals I had today to avoid describing actual food that would make sense being in my mouth, though that potency of my literal taste clearly began to influence my imagined ones.  What a challenge, though!  This was a real effort in concentration, clearing my mind of everything but that object and dissecting it for its “ingredients” so that when I vividly envisioned rolling it around on my tongue those flavors would come forth…even then, however, when I really felt I had locked in my mind what it would taste like, the tricky part was to articulate that in words.  As I mentioned in my previous post, taste and smell are what I find to be  the most difficult to convey as sensory details in writing, so, again, I find this will be a useful exercise to return to with frequency.

Hmm…a world in which you could taste everything?  What might that be like…


Smell No Evil

The Prompt:

My next series of posts will be pertaining to our senses, and, today, page 15 of Room to Write kicks us off with our sense of SMELL.  In describing smells, we can list significant smells or try to describe a person or place strictly using sense of smell:

Response:

There was an air freshener my mother used to keep in one of the bathrooms that always made me think of my grandmother’s winter home in Cape Coral, Florida.  Even though I hadn’t been there since the age of 5, any time I used the loo as a teenager I was transported back to this place that I could barely recall visually.  In attempting to describe this smell, it was pungent (in a good way), spiking through the nostrils with a sort of juicy, fruity, ocean breezy scent that makes me think of blue.  I also still hold onto shampoo samples from my first trip to Cabo San Lucas a few years ago (yes, I’ve saved the toiletries that long), as all I have to do is sniff to get that same teleportation to a calmer, tranquil retreat.  It smells most dominantly of sage mixed with aloe and a well-rounded fruitiness that I could cup my tongue around, though it isn’t tart like the air freshener scent–there’s something more arid about it like the dry winds breathed out by the Pacific across the sand and carried green brittle scents of cacti.  It’s a scent that makes me see a cloudless blue sky from the vantage of floating on my back in the waters of an azure-tiled pooled.  As a kid I would love to step into my parents’ garage on a humid summer day and deeply inhale the fragrance of gasoline (healthy habit, I know), which gave me the same satisfaction as the scents of freshly-cut wood and wood stain still can when I enter a home improvement or furniture store.  An odor on the cusp of this category, but that walks a finer line between love and hate with me is that of fresh paint.  No, in fact, the jury is in on that one after all; I don’t like it for its way of teasing me at first that it’s wood stain then goes in for the sting of sour headache-inducing toxicity.  To alleviate it, I open my windows to the moist air that can smell of snowy chills and soil and the must of dried leaves, exhaust, and the occasional coriander.  I like the smell of entering the bathroom after my husband has already showered so I can take in the herbal, apple-y, musky mixture of assorted toiletries, undermined only by the now-and-then stink of mossy mildew, like grub-infested mud.  As I remove my clothing to take my own shower, I may catch a whiff of paprika and salted alfredo.  I’ve never been one to be able to distinguish between the components of a glass of wine’s bouquet, so perhaps my olfactory sense is, in fact, weak, but I’ll say this:  one scent I cannot handle is breath.  The mildewy rot of halitosis goes without saying; I’m talking even the slightest essence of chicken or pepper or garlic, the stale, chemical scent of consumed alcohol, or the milder yet gag-inducing average scent, like milk steamed with the stifling closeness of humidity…whatever it is, I’m not having it in my face.  I’ve never understood the possibility of poets’ descriptions of “sweet breath” in their odes of love, and “baby’s breath” always creeped me out as a flower’s name.  Breath is what stinks up a bedroom like dirty feet and clammy armpits when one falls asleep with one’s mouth open without having brushed one’s teeth.  Contained odor of other people’s bodies on airplanes, trains, buses, what have you, is another sensitivity for me.  I addressed my own stench above after a day’s activity and a night’s rest, but the ground-in cumin smell that practically solidifies in the air as its own entity when a human has not been washed for days, if not weeks, is an olfactory oppression, and I would be mortified if my smell was enough to infuse a room merely because I occupy it.  There is nothing scent-sational in that.

Reflection:

This activity brought me warm, soothing memories in the opening as I recalled the scents that give me pleasure, but I see how I gradually gravitated toward the more unpleasant of life’s odors and thereby yanked myself from tranquility into the judgmental crankiness of an old codger!

Like I said above, I never regarded myself as one to have the most keen sense of smell, but I realize now I’m much more sensitive in this aspect than I would’ve given much pause to realize.  It seems when people write (including myself), the first descriptions to jump to are the visual ones.  Even looking at what I wrote above, I couldn’t resist reverting to visuals.  I noticed this all the time with my high school students, and we used to workshop on revising their stories to try to incorporate all five of the senses to better immerse the reader into their storyworlds.  It’s this descriptive language that brings words on the page to life because it appeals to our living faculties and makes us feel as though we’re using them when we read, smelling what the characters smell, touching what they do, etc.

From my experience, smell and taste tend to me the least incorporated descriptors (if not most challenging), so this is a worthwhile exercise to come back to time and again.  Whenever we write a new passage and revisit it to revise, we must ask ourselves if there is anything in that passage that lends itself to scent.  If not, or if it wouldn’t add much value as a superfluous, distracting detail, then we shouldn’t force it.  But if it could enhance the scene as a more realistic sensory experience, then we should certainly try.


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