While visiting our daughter recently, my wife produced a tattered box of keepsakes–mostly old letters and photos. A dainty envelope, yellowed with age, lay among the treasures spread out for review. It contained a handkerchief which belonged to my grandmother who passed away many years ago.
On seeing it, I recalled how she took it (or one just like it) everywhere, either in her hand or tucked in a pocket of her ever practical clothing.
“It’s scented,” my daughter said, surrendering it to me. I held the scrap of linen to my nose, took a whiff, and wham! The fragrance instantly brought my grandmother back into my life. I sat at the table weeping like a lost child and feeling like an idiot.
We all know the power of the senses, and we’ve all heard how the best writers use them in their work. “Sensory writing,” we’re told over and over, “is the path to greatness.”
“Yes, yes! Amen!” we say, because we’re all members of the writing choir. And then we go right back to doing business the old way.
Why? Because most of us don’t practice using our senses, at least, not for writing. Our world is so visually attuned, we rarely think any other way.
In an effort to climb out of that rut, I took pad and pen to the local coffee shop, and got an instant dose of sensory stuff just walking through the door: the aroma of coffee, of course, but also the smell of fresh baked bread, the murmur of low voices, and classical music in the background. Though tempted to congratulate myself for stumbling over the blindingly obvious, I plodded on.
After selecting a pastry — I’m a great believer in rewards — I settled into a comfy chair with beverage in hand and roughly a half million unneeded calories in front of me. The plan was simple: one bite of cannoli, one sip of latte, then: work.
I forced myself to experience my surroundings without viewing them. Eyes shut, I consumed the pastry and chased it with flavored coffee while mentally cataloging the textures of the crust and the filling, the way the powdered sugar melted on my tongue, and the feel of the fork on my lips. I discovered a surprising array of temperatures, flavors and smells.
When I had about a dozen things to record, I opened my eyes and jotted them down as quickly as possible.
Round two: another bite, another sip. Eyes closed once again.
I concentrated on voices, listening for distinctive variations. Age, dialect, and emotional tone all came through quite clearly, as did coughs, hiccups, snorts, sighs, and laughter.
Back to the notepad! The list of sensory inputs grew. Eventually I got them all, or at the very least, dozens more than I’d ever need to paint such a scene in a story.
A few days later I tried it again, in a shopping mall. Potential practice areas abound: office, garage, church — anywhere people gather. Or not. A cemetery would work, too.
It’s not an exercise one needs to do daily. But now when I ponder a setting, I’ll close my eyes for a bit and let my senses do their job.