Start with Your Senses
Ever feel like the writing process is overly complicated? Try this approach instead…
“Transform your kitchen with black cupboard knobs. Update an ordinary room into a culinary wonderland with elegant ebony accents. Liven up both home and hearth with simple and sleek knobs that capture the warmth of the holidays all year long. Impress even the most discerning palates with these high-quality flourishes. Add glass cupboard knobs to a corner armoire to renovate a regular American breakfast nook into a Parisian bistro. Choose from a variety of sophisticated styles. Re-envision the beauty of the family meal by adorning your dining area with a selection of knob designs, patterns and complimentary drawer pulls.”
No lie! That was an actual paid writing gig of mine. My first literary buck made on a 100-word description of kitchen knobs.
I had to imagine how these damn knobs would function in a luxury dining room. How they would feel to grasp. Would they make a drawer close more quietly? Could they change the entire look of a space?
Dripping with infatuation over drawer pulls, I sent an email to a friend asking for his feedback on my first knob summary.
“I’m loving this experience,” I wrote him, “you take ordinary things, smoosh them together with hardcore sex and a sprinkle of the Stepford Wives and abracadabra, you get some kind of Mad Men ad for dreamy domesticity.”
The power of words had enchanted me, even if my writing was bombastic.
At the time, I didn’t realize what was so captivating about this project. I hadn’t yet figured out that I was using simple sensory observation. Sure, my sentences were inflated, but before I arrived at such decorative word choices, I had to envision the physical functionality of each item. And that’s where all the power resided.
This literary observation mirrored one of my first drama exercises. As a theatre student in Acting 101, we all received an item to explore.
If we were given a key, we had to sit with it. Feel the ridges of it. Smell the key. Hold it in both hands. We could stab the air with it, we could stick it on our tongues and taste it’s metallic properties. But we couldn’t talk about it or share it with our peers. We had to sit in complete meditation with the one solitary item.
I got Coke. As in Coca-Cola—don’t get excited. If you’ve ever taken a sip of this stuff and let it sit on your tongue without swallowing, you’ll notice a peroxide-ish acid burn bubbling up in your mouth. There’s really no refreshing effervescence. The exercise completely cured me of my soda addiction.
So, before you tackle some abstract concept in your journal today, let me give you an easier approach into your stories.
I want you to start with your senses. Sit with them. And really identify what comes up for you. It may not be what you expect.
That’s right! You’re going to write only what you can see, hear, feel, taste, and touch.
I know, it seems overly simplistic. But there’s a lot to explore through your five senses. And no cheating. Don’t just assume you know how you will experience something. Instead leave yourself open to whatever feelings come up. Only record your actual physical sensations.
Writing an entire book sounds like a mega quest. Or a talent gifted only to a few artists. But what if you saw the first stages of writing as a craft? An opportunity to build your stories with words and sentences through this simple tool of sensory observation.
Start small. Consider a short story or a poem. Or even a vignette or literary sketch.
Here, you can break skills down into their most basic parts. Figure out the use of sensory observation first before adding it to other tools and building up your knowledge. Think of the senses as your first building block.
My catalogue days taught me to take the smallest of items, mostly mundane household objects, and describe them using my five senses. Before I could make them sparkle in some spectacular way, I had to reflect on their ordinariness. What does this object do? I had to check in with my five senses.
Once I figured out this key component of working with the five senses, I signed up for a travel writing program.
Black cupboard knobs turned into vast foreign landscapes.
This would surely prove to be a different way of writing, right?
Not really—and don’t call me Shirley!
The writing process for detailing common household objects and entire unknown cities is astoundingly similar.
Travel writing, or travel journalism as my class was called, taught me to stay away from clichéd language and not fall back on someone else’s descriptions of place and time. Essentially, to use my five senses and paint a picture of where I was in my personal journey.
I had traveled to Spain. But my experience of Spain would never be 16th century St. Teresa of Avila’s Spain, even when I visited her walled city. Nor would it be Hemingway’s Spain of the 1940s, even when I hung out at his old haunt, Museo Chicato.
No, my Spain was a bloody gash.
I introduced myself to Madrid as an open wound. An oozing, ugly mess running to catch the right Metro line at rush hour. I had traveled over 24 hours by train from Monte Carlo to Madrid when I fell face down. The wheel of my suitcase jamming between the Metro car and the platform, halting all movement as my energy leapt ahead of me. A chunk of my skin still stuck at the station as the doors slammed shut. I scrambled to take a seat—bleeding.
I felt nothing.
No pain emanating from my wounded leg. No anguish while watching the goring of the bulls at Plaza de Toros Las Venta. Nothing mesmerizing during the ménage à trois with the Meringue singer and his machismo. Not even fear over leaving my old life behind as a riot raged outside my hotel room in the city center. I was a single woman in a strange place who barely spoke the language.
I scabbed over to survive.
My experience of Spain provoked me to take action and keep moving. A dynamic energy that died the day I landed in lazy Savannah, Georgia.
The travel magazines always described Savannah the same way. Quaint and eccentric. Nestled on the coast. A hidden gem.
Language that was not only overused, but flat out wrong!
Learning to use your five senses in the writing process is about telling the truth. Not the truth of a place. But your truth within that place. Your senses don’t lie like your mind and memory can.
My Savannah doesn’t look like the Savannah inside a glossy travel mag. Mine is full of grit and the green glow of some Irish pub long after business hours. It’s the smell of some drunk moving in too close. A place where I’m forever running away, stumbling down the same cracked sidewalks that cover the bodies of those who dropped dead of Yellow Fever a century ago.
It’s where I contemplate the tent city that’ll never be featured in Travel + Leisure. And worry about an exploding HIV epidemic; an invisible population that doesn’t get the funding it needs to stay well, as Hollywood gets more tax breaks to invade the socialite squares with their cameras.
Honest writing is naked writing. It involves the five senses fully. You must learn to use these senses first. To more closely examine what you already know.
While in school to get my teaching certification, I had a mentor teacher who taught International Baccalaureate in a high school. He devoted much of his time to helping his kids think about their own thinking.
On the first day of class, he’d created a giant meta drawing on his white board.
The questions he listed were:
1. What do you see?
2. What do you know about what you see?
3. What else would you like to know about it?
The first step was key and often overlooked.
Before you can spiral out into drawing conclusions, philosophizing, or creating some weighty tome on the meaning of life, you’ve got to start right where you are. (Sam Bennett is the author of a delightful book entitled just that— Start Right Where You Are, which helps creatives take small steps towards big success. Check it out!) My mentor suggested that his students explore this path by considering what they could see first.
I’d take his advice one step further and say describing what you see is really about detailing your reality through the five senses.
You can put this simple exercise to work for you right now.
2. Look around you.
3. Stay in the present moment. (Don’t go back into your memory. Don’t go forward with fantasy.)
4. Use your senses to describe your environment in the present:
What do you see?
What do you hear?
What do you smell?
What do you taste?
What do you feel?
Using only the five senses, you should be able to vividly describe a scene. One that will capture where you are and what you’re experiencing in this moment.
You may think you can’t answer all the questions. If I’m looking at a trashcan, I can’t describe what it tastes like.
Of course nobody is expecting you to eat garbage.
But what if instead of ignoring certain senses, you found a way to creatively embrace each one? Yes, you as a grown human would never taste trash, but what if you were a dog or a small child? Could challenging your way of perceiving help you come up with creative ways to examine all your five senses?
Challenge yourself to apply standard sensory observations to unlikely experiences:
What would music look like?
How does your lunch sound?
What does your favorite movie smell like?
But don’t stop here with your creativity. Consider using it with memory recall, too.
Think of a smell that takes you back to your grandmother’s cooking or your mother’s perfume. Expand upon that experience by describing the smell, adding the visual and auditory elements, continuing until you’ve detailed an experience using all five senses.
While I was in Savannah and the Hilton Head area, I spent every Monday with a retired court reporter turned poet. Olivia and I would stew over her work trying to perfect each stanza. It was a revision process that required a scalpel.
I never considered myself to a poetry fan. I didn’t write any and thought it was mostly abstract nonsense. Until I met Olivia. The strength of her words resided in distilling life down to the bare bones, using basic sensory details. Her poetry appeared deceptively simple, yet after reading it, you walked away having experienced transcendence.
One poem in particular gave us hell.
I harped on her last stanza. I wouldn’t let go of it. We argued, back and forth over the minutia of one line. Then haggling through a tug of war over a single word. It was a grueling kind of exactness I’d never experienced in prose editing, but I knew it had to be right.
This is the moment that turned me from writer into editor. Our time together perfecting her verse, sharpening my senses. Until I learned to see in nuance.
You can find that poem here, chosen and read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac.
But don’t just read or listen to it. Consider how Olivia uses the five senses:
Does she explore all of them?
Which senses stand out the most?
How do our expectations of the five senses compare to her use of sensory observation? How do they contrast?
In what ways do her explorations of the senses ground us in the present moment? In what ways do they help us transcend the ordinary world? Can both of these exist at the same time?
You can also apply my mentor teacher’s strategy to her poem:
1. What do you see?
When you read her poem, what are the key elements that she explores? Are you familiar with these things? Are they ordinary objects or experiences? Is anything new or confusing to you?
2. What do you know about what you see?
What do you as the reader bring to this poem? Do you have previous experience as a grandparent or grandchild? With the other elements she describes? How does your personal experience get superimposed on this poem? Can you relate to the poem? Why or why not?
3. What else would you like to know about the poem?
What questions do you have about the poem? Is there any mystery to it? Does it make you consider anything differently in life? How can your experience of her poem broaden your storytelling perspective?
Don’t wait. Identify a way you can start with your senses right now. Pick something small and start to consider how it looks, sounds, tastes, smells, and feels.
What item did you choose? How will this item deepen your writing experience?
And if you need more inspiration for your sensory observations check out Olivia Stiffler’s poetry here.