Help your readers to use their senses

Tonight I begin teaching a two-week writing workshop at UCSD Extension on “Writing with the Senses.” It may seem obvious that a writer should write with the senses, but many new writers neglect that aspect of storytelling. Others overdo it, writing about every wrinkle and twitch to the point where we lose focus of what is happening in the story.

Meg Gardiner writes with great control, a necessity when writing thrillers. But she doesn’t forget to incorporate the senses. Here is an excerpt from her book The Memory Collector: Tang was a sea urchin, small and prickly. She wore a black peacoat, black slacks, black boots. Spiky black hair. Jo knew that beneath the barbs, she had a heart—a cautious, well-guarded heart. But reaching it could result in cuts and bruises. She liked Tang enormously.

The sea urchin image sells the rest of the description, and tells us a great deal about Tang.

Another writer who weaves the senses in his writing is John Morgan Wilson, as in this excerpt from Simple Justice: The city was golden, blinding, blasted by heavenly light. It was one of those days that made nipples rise and minds wander and bodies shiver with sensuality and inexplicable dread. The kind of day when the heat wrapped snugly around you but sent an ominous chill up your back at the same time, like the first sexual touch in a dark room from a beautiful stranger whose name you’d never know.

Days that make nipples rise? Wonderful line!

Or consider Michael Chabon, who sometimes gets carried away, but writes delightful lines like these in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: Peril Strait is a jumble of boats, a fuel pump, a row of weathered houses in the colors of rusted-out engines. The houses huddle on their pilings like skinny-legged ladies. A mangy stretch of boardwalk noses among the houses before wandering over to the boat slips to lie down. It all seems to be held together by a craze of hawser, tangles of fishing line, scraps of purse seine strung with crusted floats. The whole village might be nothing but driftwood and wire, flotsam from the drowning of a far-off town.

I was inexplicably delighted when I read “a mangy stretch of boardwalk noses among the houses before wandering over to the boat slips to lie down.” Who SEES a boardwalk that way? But it’s a perfect description.

As you read, ignore those prohibitions that echo in your mind about not marking in your books. When you see a strong description, highlight it, or write it in your writing journal. Learn to embrace writing that brings the senses alive. Not only will your own reading become more enjoyable, but you’ll find yourself looking at the world differently, as a writer should.

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Writing with the Senses

I just saw “Inception,” a movie that cannot be easily described with mere words. As such, I realize that I should use it as an example in my next writing class at UCSD Extension: Writing with the Senses.

The movie was a feast for the senses of sight and hearing. The other senses had to be left to the imagination: smell, touch, and taste. Visually, the movie was stunning, and overwhelming. How does one adequately describe the streets of Paris rolling up and over one’s head, so that the slate roof tiles of one stone building lay atop another and cars made ninety-degree turns UP as the avenue bent? or how two characters battled in a zero-gravity hallway, scrambling for handholds as they maneuvered for chokeholds? It can be done, but it won’t be easy…finding the exact words to build the vision in the reader’s mind.

That’s the power of writing with the senses. Learning to use words to bring sight, sound, taste, smells, and touch to the reader’s mind, to create images that will elicit sensory memory in the reader. My workshop at UCSD will be only two meetings, but long enough for the students to get a taste of what it means to write with the senses.