Tag Archives: Descriptive Language

Slippery When Wet

Just returned from a long bank holiday weekend camping in Devon with some pleasant drives and strolls through Somerset and the Cotswolds as well.  The English countryside with its rolling patchwork of greens and yellows and occasional puffs of white sheep and dairy cows—all accessorized in dense hedges or stony walls and cottages—is certainly an isle of inspiration for a writer.  Be they grasses or cobbles underfoot, the paths one treads here are a return to the natural state and the fundamentals on which we build our lives and stories.

The last writing prompt I followed involved fire; today’s regards that other element that seemed to so dominate my camping trip, whether it surged onto the coastal sands or pattered against our tent in the night.  I speak, of course, of water.

The Prompt:

Page 31 of Room to Write asks us to “write about water: tap water, ocean water, rain water, any water or experience or dream of water that has both wet and whetted [our] imagination.”   Well, I’ve written about my water dreams already, so I’ll try not to be too redundant here…

Response:

WATER.  It multiplies the Mogwai or signals an approaching T-Rex, melts the Wicked Witch or freezes Leonardo to Kate Winslet.  It helps kids slip-n-slide and makes T-shirt contests more interesting.  It conforms to the shape of its container and yields both its clarity and taste to the color and flavor of what enters it; yet I would not call it submissive.  No, it fills the container’s inner space to empty it of air and weigh it down, and it dilutes the efficacy of what it absorbs, dissipating it in its solvency whenever it can play this advantage.  It carves canyons and fjords in its liquid and solid states, eroding away in its slow, subtle way of feigning innocence.  Water cleanses away the toxins, rinses the filth; it quenches our thirst and hydrates our cells.  It cools or it scalds, it cleans or it floods; it can keep us afloat with its density or yank us down with its current, hold us up on a wave or crush us under a whitecap.  It ebbs, it flows, it dips, it swells.  It can flush out mortal life or baptize into one everlasting.  In its glassy calm, its surface can reflect our being and the wonder of the skies as it refracts the perceptions that penetrate deeper.  Water contains mystery in its depths, holding it beyond the reach of light, and yet what it sprays forth to glitter in the sun can somehow reveal all the answers.

Reflection:

Water has always fascinated me…as a little girl, I wanted to be a mermaid, and as an adult, I found a new way of communing with it when I learned to sail (the capsizing drill in 50-degree Fahrenheit Lake Michigan being one bonding session I could have done without…it was less fun the second time around when the main sail came down on top of me and trapped me underwater—not to fear!  I was an apt pupil and remembered my survival strategy :)).

Anyways, I find I often allude to water in my writing as analogous to emotions and circumstances, playing on the ways it can be a subduing or overwhelming force, an annoyance like a leaking faucet, or perhaps a current that sweeps my characters along the tributaries that lead into their destinies.  It’s a recurring motif, for example, from the very first to the very last sentence of a short story I once wrote in which the narrator is literally unable to drink from a water fountain, which parallels her deeper “thirst” as she comes of age:

“Here she had the smartest guy in my physics club falling all over himself to impress her, saturating her ego with his deluge of compliments, but she gets all haughty and tense, as though struggling to ignore the persistent drip of water torture.

Girls like her just rinse and spit. They’ll spit out a mouthful and have the nerve to complain that they’re thirsty.”

I also can’t help but think of this element at the pen-tips of the pros, such as the way Stephen Crane wields water in his short story, “The Open Boat”:

“None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks. Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small-boat navigation.”

No matter how light or heavy the content of a story, there seems to be an abyss of options for describing water or using it metaphorically, especially as it shares the complex dualities of fire that I’ve discussed previously.  In this way, it is a tap that could never run dry, so to speak.

So I’m curious—what are examples of water imagery that you have found effective, either in your own or others’ writing?


Fire Walk With Me

The Prompt:

Given the prevalent symbolism of fire across centuries of story-telling, page 30 of Room to Write asks us to share “a personal story, memory, or belief about fire.”  Or, we can conduct a freewriting beginning with the word “fire” and let it spread from there.

Response:

FIRE.  It takes life and sustains life.  It guides our sight through darkness or blinds us to what else we might find in shadow, revealing and concealing.  It illuminates our romance and dances upon the page.  Fire attracts the moth and repels the mosquito; it swallows the air and laps up the tinder that shelters us, spiriting it away in climbing smoke, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  It licks our bones clean and sterilizes the needle, preens the prairie grasses and purifies the water.  It  casts menace upon our faces when lighting us from beneath, yet shrouds in angelic glow when lighting us from behind.  Fire converts raw food into nourishment for our bodies, or consumes nourishment for our souls into raw emotion.  It is an exclamation that will clear a room within seconds or signal a gathering to share stories round its warmth.  It thaws, it soothes, it burns, it chars; it can fuel our hope or ignite our dread.  It can whisper to us in crackles and snaps, promising safety and comfort in a cold, barren landscape, or it can hiss at us like wind against our eardrums or a stampede rumbling down the hillside to crush us.  Fire is an element embracing our passions, sweeping exponentially in our lust or our anger until it sizzles into dowsing foam or, when there’s nothing more upon which it can feed, coughs its smoldering death rattle as glowing cinders close their eyes on a bed of black.

Reflection:

Ah, this prompt brought me back to my teaching days, when fire was so often imagery to analyzeI’ve actually used this exact same activity in class so that students could reflect on what connotations fire held for them.  And, as I can see above, I personally muse over the dualities of fire in all its functions and figurative implications.

This dichotomy is evident in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, in which fire goes from being a symbol of a romantic love to that of recklessness:

“O! she doth teach the torches to burn bright.” – Romeo commenting on Juliet’s beauty

“These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.” – The Friar commenting on R&J’s impetuous actions

In just writing about it above, I found how naturally anthropomorphism came, describing fire in terms of carrying out human/animal actions—e.g., “laps up,” “licks,” “preens,” “whisper,” “coughs,” etc.  This immediately brings to mind the figurative and descriptive language William Golding employed to depict fire in Lord of the Flies:
“Smoke was rising here and there among the creepers that festooned the dead or dying trees.  As they watched, a flash of fire appeared at the root of one wisp, and then the smoke thickened.  Small flames stirred at the trunk of a tree and crawled away through leaves and brushwood, dividing and increasing.  One patch touched a tree trunk and scrambled up like a bright squirrel.  The smoke increased, sifted, rolled outwards.  The squirrel leapt on the wings of the wind and clung to another standing tree, eating downwards. Beneath the dark canopy of leaves and smoke the fire laid hold on the forest and began to gnaw.  Acres of black and yellow smoke rolled steadily toward the sea.  At the sight of the flames and the irresistible course of the fire, the boys broke into shrill, excited cheering.  The flames, as though they were a kind of wild life, crept as a jaguar creeps on its belly toward a line of birch-like saplings that fledged an outcrop of the pink rock.  They flapped at the first of the trees, and the branches grew a brief foliage of fire.  The heart of flame leapt nimbly across the gap between the trees and then went swinging and flaring along the whole row of them.  Beneath the capering boys a quarter of a mile square of forest was savage with smoke and flame.  The separate noises of the fire merged into a drum-roll that seemed to shake the mountain.”
The similes and anthropomorphism above create such vivid sensory detail; this is the kind of descriptive writing to aspire for.
Okay then, your turn.  Does fire bear a personal meaning for you?  What images, emotions, or beliefs does it represent?


Cat’s Eye

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

– Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince

On page 27 of Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg tells us that it is not only with our eyes that we see.  Our inner eyes are comprised of three things:  instinct (“previous experience”), intuition (“gut reaction”), and imagination (“mental flash of possible  scenarios”).

The Prompt:

Look around at anything you literally see and visualize it more robustly by using the above three ways of “seeing.”  In doing so, we should observe which means of seeing is most difficult for us versus which comes easiest.  Today, I’m going to focus on a random image I viewed out the window two nights ago at a cocktail party.

Response:

Standing poised atop the intricately scrolling wrought iron railing of a second-floor terraced house window, the Ninja Kitty remains frozen with all four of its paws aligned in a perfectly straight line.  It holds its balance there for perhaps ten minutes, frozen in fear (or is it a calculating calm?) as it assesses the situation:  having tight-rope-walked itself to where the corner of an exterior wall juts out, separating the ledges of two different flats, Ninja Kitty stands with its two hind paws on the railing above one ledge while its front paws have traversed to the part of the railing where the second ledge begins.  At its middle, then, is the corner wall that, though an inch or two away, surely feels like a blade brushing against its fur, threatening the cat to jump as though it’s just walked the splintering plank of a creaking, renegade ship.

Ninja Kitty appears to have three choices:  1) leap off toward the sidewalk, testing the validity of the old conception that a cat will always land on its feet, 2) moon-walk backward to try getting back onto the first ledge, or, 3) keep easing forward enough that it can attain the leverage it needs to leap onto the second ledge.

Still the blonde cat hesitates, and I can almost perceptibly make out the “Fuuuuuuuudge” thought-bubble about to burst on the sharp tips of its ears; reflecting off the vertical slits of its pupils are the illuminated graphics of a mental decision-tree database, running through iterations of calculations as the cat sizes up its variables of physics.  Vectors and velocity methodically slide and sort and file away in Ninja Kitty’s mind until it’s the make-or-break moment.  This is happening.  And…NOW!  Ninja Kitty bows slightly and launches from its hind legs to alight gently and fully on the second ledge.

Victory is the feline’s, but, before it can even get its bearings and exalt in relief, there is a rustling at the shade drawn over an adjacent French door.  A flat occupant, I reasonably presume, who must have been looking on in peril from an unseen vantage, yet doing so impotently with no attempt at aiding in rescue.  Just as I judge the day-late and dollar-shortness of that cowardly individual, the dark pointed ears of another house cat materialize from underneath the shade.  Then and there, Ninja Kitty’s humility over its recent, dangerous, and embarrassing predicament is vanished, if it existed at all—within split seconds, the cats are rearing on their hind legs and clawing at each other through the glass, staking their outdoor/indoor territory as though it was one and the same.  Smack, scratch, scrape-scrape, they continue batting at each other with electric intensity, and, before I know it, Ninja Kitty is haughtily heaving itself back up on the railing (looking for a moment like it was about to do pull-ups) to no longer give this enemy the time of day.

And there it was, standing poised (in the opposite direction, this time) atop the intricately scrolling wrought iron railing, frozen with all four of its paws aligned in a perfectly straight line.  This was the point at which I looked away, disinterested.  That cat either knew what it was doing or didn’t learn from history and was thereby doomed to repeat it.  I conjecture it is living on its fifth life at most.

Reflection:

Ah, that was a fun little romp, though probably doing no justice to the profound quotation that opens this post!  And I imagine I could have taken it further and deeper if I’d chosen a human subject (sorry, PETA).

The whole scenario was amusing to actually watch, though (the glasses of wine I’d already consumed probably adding to the hilarity of the moment), and yet I can’t deny that I was simultaneously looking on in horror.  I couldn’t help but imagine the possibilities left to the cat in this seemingly impossible dilemma, yet my instinctive impression of how it was apprising the situation and would ultimately act was based on previous observations of cats and their cautious, arrogant mannerisms, as well as my intuitive understanding of what it means to be “catty,” as that feisty bitchiness is part of my own nature when I’m confronted 🙂  Monkey has claws!



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?


In the Beginning, There Was the Blank Page…

…or, these days, the blank computer screen.  Every true writer’s mind has a story just dying to get out of it, yet this doesn’t necessarily make getting started any easier.  Following up directly on my previous post regarding the writing conference I attended last weekend (sponsored by the organization Room to Write), one of the topics we addressed was beginnings, which cannot be more critical to a story, particularly if you want to get it published.

First of all, as far as how you begin to write each day, the key is:  1) ensuring that you do write every day, even if just a few sentences; and, 2) the authors leading the conference particularly advised us to write first thing in the morning.  That is when our heads can be freshest and leave us feeling for the rest of the day that we’ve already accomplished something massive (so you don’t have to feel guilty taking that nap 🙂 ).  While I wish I could discipline myself to haul my keester out of bed earlier than the minimum allowable time for getting ready for work, I have to admit I have my most significant rush of ideas in the morning as I shower, as though I’m massaging them out of me noggin as I shampoo my hair.  I always hate that I have to leave for work soon after then, just when I’m in the groove and risk losing the momentum by the time I return home drained from the daily toil.

As far as the actual beginning of our story or novel, we must note that the first chapter (indeed, first page) is the “imprint of the entire book.” The sense of place and voice established in that first page predicts the rest of the book.  My tutors also stressed the impact of including a sense of smell right from the getgo, as it creates a lingering impression unlike the other senses (and is unfortunately one of the most underutilized, as I’ve mentioned before in my “Smell No Evil” post).

With regard to place, we were advised to give places names, even if it’s a fake name to anonymize an actual place.  In this way, a place, if prevalent enough to the story, can become a character in itself.  Closely related in terms of setting, the time period in which our story takes place should be implied well enough to give a clear sense, yet we don’t have to preach to the reader when exactly it is.

With regard to the sample of best-selling novels we read in preparation for the course, we evaluated the following common denominators that we noted across each of their beginnings:

– Drama or sense of impending danger

– Character (be it the main character’s name or an archetype to be represented throughout)

– Setting (again, the sense of time and place)

– Conflict (at least a sense of the issue at the crux of the story)

– “Filmic”—i.e., achieves ready visualization and engagement through drama and descriptive language

Finally, we may have a strong temptation to overly explain some aspect of the story right out the gate, be it the character, setting, conflict, etc.  To avoid this, we need to give our reader credit and exercise restraint—we can always introduce this information in a creative way later on.

I do believe I am at the end of discussing beginnings, so meet me here next time for a few words on dialogue.


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.


Resurfacing from the Dive

It’s been a few days since I’ve tended to the blog, not because I continued to sink into the despair I was feeling when I wrote my last entry, but quite the contrary.  I’ve been inspired!  One little tangible gratification that came my way since I last posted was an unexpected email regarding a contest submission I’d entered last year…I took the lack of response as a rejection, but no, I was selected for an anthology of letters.  So, not a nod toward my creative writing yet, but I take this as encouragement in my writing in general.  I have always been told that I write a nice note… 🙂

Anyways, riding on that positive bit-o-momentum, I’ve been writing a new short story over the last couple days to enter into a fiction contest.  Making decent progress on that so far, but presently taking a break by shifting gears over here in the blog so that I can refresh and dive back into my story.

The Prompt:

Page 14 of Room to Write asks us to revisit a previous “diving” (freewriting) session and pluck out a phrase, passage, or metaphor/simile that we ourselves still don’t fully understand.  Goldberg is operating on the belief that sometimes our writing is ahead of us—no, not that we’re psychic, but that we’re “tapping into a stream where imagination and intuition meet.”  What may initially sound like nonsense might contain a nugget of truth and understanding that further writing can help unlock and deepen.  To do this, we should roll this passage around on our tongue and practice any or all of the following strategies:  a) apply it in dialogue; b) list associations with it; c) create an acrostic using a key word from it; d) draw it; and/or e) verbalize it out loud using variations in tone, pitch, or accent

On revisiting a previous freewrite, then, I’m torn between these two passages (the most peculiar parts to me are highlighted):

1.  “playing at children’s games mild lost to tea and egg pie and muddle gunk and tomfoolery wizened but not wise enough”

2.  “I catch my breath and try to inhale the purity calmness gaseous extremity that I can believe in the cool quake calmness of din and then I reach the apex of snow and glide and glisten along my way the sunny fresh extremes of hilltops glossed in icing and glint and free falling to a furry escape

Response:

To address #1, I believe I meant that the benign naivety of childhood gives way to an adulthood confined by more rigidly self-imposed rules of living, like proper afternoon teas or other modes of conduct that are considered refined but may be even more nonsensical foolishness (i.e., “muddle gunk and tomfoolery“) than the ways children approach life through their innocent, natural perspectives—adults kidding themselves that they’ve learned through years of experience yet still have so much more to understand.  “Muddle gunk” sounds like something very inspired by e.e. cummings, a way of making up one’s own words that somehow capture an idea through their sounds.  On re-reading the passage, “egg pie” really sounded strange to me at first, but now that I conceptualize it more, there’s nothing odd about it at all; it’s just a more silly, casual-sounding (indeed, more childlike) way of saying “quiche.”

As for #2, as I repeat “cool quake calmness” aloud, the alliteration of the hard ‘c’ sound instantly clacks against the roof of my mouth, creating a crisp, clean connotation (look, I did it again!) that suits the image I presume I was trying to create at the time.  How “calmness” can coexist with a “quake” or “din” is confusing, though, so let’s see if I can work it out.  I associate the last two words with the two senses of touching and hearing, “quake” being a violent shaking or shuddering like an earthquake beneath one’s feet and “din” being a ruckus, a commotion of sound (for some reason I hear someone clanging on a pan with a spoon, perhaps simply because “din” first makes me think of “dinner” by virtue of its spelling, not meaning).  It could be that the tremors and cacophony somehow respectively meld into a steady vibration and white noise, within the hum of which one actually can drown out distraction and disturbance to find peace.

As to why I would describe the escape from all the clamor as “furry,” I’ll use that for my acrostic:

Friction-free

Underbelly

Refreshing

Relief

Yielding

It seems I meant that it would be a soft landing that would only bring tickling, warming, soothing relief as it breaks the fall from the more putrid, rotting, artificially-created existence described earlier in the freewritten piece.

Reflection:

This was a useful exercise for revisiting my own words.  It’s wild to think that we can write things that we don’t ourselves even understand at the time–even more so that we can extract meaning from it eventually, and something that actually does make sense!  It’s a testament to the power of writing and how it helps us to unearth truths and propel us forward into the realization of them.


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