Exercises to Build Your "Good Writing" Muscles Help (page 3)
Practice with Sensory Images
To build convincing and engaging experience on the page, to make their created worlds vivid, writers employ all five senses in their writing, rather than summarize or editorialize. Using images from childhood speeds the process of learning to use sensory information in writing because our senses store what we remember from childhood, since we didn't "cerebralize" what we experienced at that time. That's the kind of memory we have to cultivate as writers.
To get started encouraging the use of the five senses in your writing, think of an image from your childhood, an object you saw and could touch like rubber boots, a backyard puddle, the couch in your living room, the fur of a pet, or the wooden chairs at the kitchen table. Now, write a paragraph about this object using five sentences, one sentence to capture the way you experienced this object with each of the senses. Sight: What color and shape was the object? Touch: What was the object's texture and temperature when you touched it? Was it hot or cold, warm or room temperature? Did it make your arm itch? Was it furry or rough? Smell: What did the object (or being near it) smell like? Perhaps the smell is coming from the next room—cookies baking while you sit on the couch watching your favorite TV program. Sound: What is the sound you remember? Did the boots squeak when you pulled them on? Was the telephone ringing as you tied the laces? Was there something some one always said when you were with this object? Taste: If you were putting the boots on, did you hold a wool mitten in your mouth until you were done? Was there something you'd just finished eating, the taste of which lingered for you? Did the air have a taste?
Your job is to create an experience of this object so that you, as well as anyone reading what you have written, is transported to the place and time you are writing about.
Caroline Arnold, author of more than 140 books for children, suggests her students choose an object, place, person, or animal, and write five sentences about it, one sentence (or two) for each sense—sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Examples of how she does this simply in her children's books, A Walrus' World and A Killer Whale's World, are:
- Sight: The baby walrus' plump body is covered with short fur.
- Smell: The mother walrus sniffs her baby and rubs his back with her whiskers.
- Sound: Splash! He tumbles into the water. Splash! His mother dives in too.
- Touch: Using her whiskers, she feels a clam. Then she grabs the shell with her lips and sucks out the meat.
- Taste: Their sleek bodies slide through the cool, salty water.
Whether your descriptions are simple or complex, "The important thing," Arnold says, "is to immerse yourself in the scene and use all your senses to convey the essence of that scene to your reader. To find out if you are using sensory descriptions in your writing, go through one of your stories with a highlighter, and mark each time you use one of your senses. Note which sense you use most often."
Now that you've shown that you can stick to your senses, let's work further on employing them in writing.
Specific Exercises for Each of the Five Senses
To practice with sound imagery, I think of a noisy place—like the street I used to live on in Los Angeles on garbage collection day—and then set about describing it. Here's an example:
On garbage collection days, the disposal company my husband calls Loud and Early slams and smashes its way into our sleep. We hear garbage cans scrape the top of the thick rusty truck, then clatter across the asphalt and cement of street and curb. When we hear the garbage truck grind the dregs of our existence to a pulp, we slide our feet to the floor. A police helicopter hurls its hello from overhead, shaking the walls and shattering any memory of our dreams.
Choose a place or time of day you know well and write how it sounds. You'll find yourself using words in a row that start with the same letter (alliteration like "cans colliding" and "helicopter hurls") and words that sound like what they are describing (onomatopoeia like "clattering" and "slams").
When I want to get started writing from my sense of taste, I put something in my mouth and describe the taste of it. It makes it easier to go on to describe remembered tastes:
What might you write the taste of in your writing that will enhance your sensory approach? The taste of school glue or a new pen? To practice with writing taste, put something edible in your mouth—beet greens, vitamin C, or chewing gum, for instance. Don't chew. What does it taste like so far? Now bite into it and write what it tastes like a little more dispersed in your mouth. Now chew it and describe the taste. Now swallow or spit it out and describe the taste left in your mouth. Compare the taste to other tastes if you'd like.
Oftentimes we smell something and a flood of memories come back—marinara sauce or pot roast cooking on the stove may bring us back to our childhood home or our grandmother's house. The smell of pies baking in the oven may remind us of a bakery we worked in during high school. The smell of janitors' floor-cleaning substances might remind us of our dorm cafeteria in college. The smell of tobacco or coffee on someone's breath or the smell of fresh-mown grass or coconut oil on sunbathers takes us back years to other times and places we've experienced. Our sense of smell should never be overlooked in writing.
Here's an example of a warm-up I wrote:
I sit here and I smell the pages and binding glue on my new book. This smell brings me back to flour paste and papier-mâché days in my Brownie troop and grade school. That's when I made maracas by coating burned out light bulbs with strips of newsprint soaked in non-toxic paste made of flour and water. Strip by strip we covered the bulbs, layer upon layer of newsprint, until none of the glass we'd started with shown through. I think we must have waited for layers to dry before we added more wet newsprint, smell of wet dog. Somehow our teachers knew when it was time for us declare the musical instruments done. Somehow the glass got smashed without our damaging the papier-mâché casing we'd painstakingly created. Then we painted our instruments bright colors. They began to smell like new patent leather shoes. I think we must have used them, broken glass both hitting and missing the beat.
Write down three smells you are aware of right now—for example, your own perfume, something cooking, burning oil from a car going by, the smell of water from a hose, charcoal in the grill, baby powder on a toddler after bath time, sunlight on a cat's fur, the new plastic smell of casings on electronic components or shower curtain liners. Think of what the smell reminds you of. Write about your memory by beginning like this, "I sit here and smell ___. This smell brings me back to _____. That's when I ___.... Keep writing for 10 or 15 minutes, remembering to include more smells from that time.
Our skin soaks in information all the time. Our fingers go out to greet the world by holding objects, stroking pets and loved ones, and shaking hands with strangers. We touch the fabrics of anything we sit on, open, close, carry, or use.
I wrote about dishwater to practice writing from the sense of touch:
I plunge my hands into the soapy dishwater in the white Rubbermaid tub in my sink. It is warm as the morning coffee I sip and swallow. It slides over my skin like my cat's moist tongue when she is licking me. It feels buoyant around my hands like risen dough. I keep my hands in the soapy water before I pull the first dish out. I like feeling like a goldfish might, swimming in bowl full of sunlight from a nearby window.
I am surprised by how much I like part of the act of washing dishes! Perhaps if I chose something else, I would be surprised by dislike:
When I put my hands inside my pantyhose, gathering it so I can slip my toe inside, my fingers snag the fiber like rough little emery boards. I pull the hose up along my ankle, calf, and thigh, feel its pressure grip my skin. At first, I like the way the hose seems to hold my skin together like the bread of an orange under the peel. But when my two hose covered legs brush against each other, I feel each one begin to itch. I want to take the hose off then as if it were a bandage I didn't need. Later when it sags at my ankles, I feel the downward pull, a sensation like I have in my stomach when the elevator goes up.
Make yourself aware of your sense of touch and how to incorporate it into your writing by thinking of something you are very familiar with touching—an article of clothing, a pot scrubber, your cat, a garden rake, the steering wheel of your car. Write about the feel of it in detail. Describe touching it by comparing how it feels to how something else feels. The images you use and the comparisons you make evoke the sensory information.
You may think that you cannot possibly get down accurately and interestingly in words what you observe through your eyes. You may worry that you will include too many details and be boring. Don't be intimidated. By adhering to the following ideas, with a little practice, you will be writing fluently and with momentum.
Instead of saying something is beautiful, show its beauty. "The birds were beautiful that day" is not as rich in experience or emotion as, "The bright red cardinal visited my bird feeder, while I watched two goldfinches sitting in the Canadian thistle, eager for their turn at the feeder."
Every time you are tempted to sum things up visually with words like beautiful or ugly, take the time to use specific sight words to show, show the quality you notice. When you are using adjectives to describe something, like "wooden" before desk, think if there is more visual detail you can use.
Look at an object in the room or place you inhabit right now. Describe what this object—say a desk—looks like without relying on adjectives. Instead of saying the rectangular wooden desk, say, "The desk is made of pine, with 10 boards about 6 feet in length joined side-by-side to the width of a canoe's belly." Do the same for a scene or object you might otherwise too quickly just label beautiful, ugly, awkward, or useless.
More Practice with Details
When we offer names and details, we are making our subjects real and showing rather than telling our readers about our experiences. Specifics, along with the sensory information, allow us to create experience on the page rather than just tell others we've had the experience. If you are writing about walking to school, put in the names of streets you walked. If there are other people with you, name them (even if only first names). If you are using equipment, put in its brand name to make the experience more immediate. Writers are often amazed at the way specifics carry connotations. When I wrote about my childhood schooling, I smiled as I remembered and wrote the name of my second grade teacher, Mrs. Bore. When I wrote an essay about knowing I had to learn a lot to recover from grieving, I wrote in the name of the bay I was overlooking: Discovery Bay. There are so many examples of the way specifics enhance the tone and meaning of what we are writing.
Here's a sample of scene with sensory information that evokes feelings in a tough situation:
What was supposed to be a romantic weekend soured, as had the husband's skin.
Write about a time you learned something new from someone. Even someone you didn't like much but who taught you something you needed to learn. Start your writing in the thick of the lesson with a snippet of dialog. Then describe things so readers know where you are standing or sitting, who is there with you, what you are holding or touching, what your task is. Use sensory images and the names of locations, people, events, and products. End with another snippet of dialog from one or the other of you. Your specifics will let the reader (and you!) know more about how you felt in that situation.
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