Lessons from the Writing Workshop #4: The Senses

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #4: The Senses

Everything we know, we first know through our senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. The mind processes those sensory inputs and draws conclusions. We deduce what time it is or what season by the angle of light in the sky. We understand our partner’s mood by their tone of voice. We recognize danger when the hairs on the back of our neck stand up.

As literary writers and poets, we know that readers seek to have an experience, to immerse themselves in a world not their own. Using sensory description is one of the best ways to provide the reader a rich experience of our work.

I sometimes give students an exercise to go out into the streets and look for something to write about. Once a student came back and reported that he’d seen a man who was depressed. “Whoa,” I said, “How could you tell that? Was it his posture? The state of his clothing? The look in his eyes or the shape of his mouth? Don’t give me the conclusion,” I told him, “Give me the evidence.”

If you only present the reader with the conclusion, they will take in the information and that’s the end of it. If you give the reader the sensory evidence, they will have an experience and will draw the conclusion themselves. Having done so, the reader is actively working with the text to create meaning and is that much more engaged in the work.

There’s an exercise I often give that is designed to heighten your awareness of the senses. It’s as effective with beginners as it is with seasoned writers. You can use it if you’re just getting started writing something or anytime you need help in bringing a moment to life. There are 7 parts; you’ll need about 30 minutes total to do the whole thing.

Write about the celebration of a holiday. It could be a remembered occasion or something made up. It needs to be a specific event (not “the way my family always celebrated my birthday” but “that year Uncle Fred got drunk and put the turkey on his head.”) For each segment below, you can write a list or in paragraph form. Don’t worry too much about the writing, we’re just compiling a pool of data.

  1. Set a timer and spend 3 minutes writing about the event just from the visual perspective; what can be seen?
  2. Then, describing the same event, take 3 minutes to write about it from an aural perspective; what can be heard?
  3. Next, still working on the same event, spend 3 minutes describing it from a tactile perspective; what do we feel with our skin?
  4. Continuing with this same event, take 3 minutes to describe its smells and tastes. You may have to use associations to describe these senses, since we have fewer words for these two senses (“her neck smelled like the beach on a summer day.”)
  5. Take an additional 3 minutes and just write the action of the event; what are people doing?
  6. Then take a few moments to reflect on what you’ve written. Which senses were easy and which were harder? I’ve known students to discover that there are senses they never pay attention to. What was the most surprising thing you wrote?
  7. Finally, give yourself another 10-15 minutes to go back and write a scene about the event. You don’t need to incorporate every sensory detail you wrote down before, just choose the best ones. You can also add new ones you didn’t think of the first time. Incorporate elements of all five senses with the action, and see what you get.

Working with the senses allows us to go more deeply into our writing; it gets us out of the mind and into the body. And it allows the reader to do the same.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #3: How writing changes us

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #3: How writing changes us

I sometimes provoke students with this statement: “You can’t be a better writer than you are a person.” What I mean is that those issues that are unresolved in our lives will show up as weaknesses in our writing. A tendency toward impatience can result in writing that feels rushed or underdeveloped. A thirst for revenge can produce writing that is hurtful. We may find ourselves avoiding topics that scare us, creating worlds with less complexity than actually exists, or failing to render certain characters dimensionally because we haven’t found compassion for them.

Although this notion that we need to improve ourselves to strengthen our writing can be daunting, the good news is that writing offers writers endless opportunities for us to progress as people—to learn more, to empathize more deeply, to grow beyond our limitations and ignorance.

One of the things we learn as writers is that no character can be all good or all bad; a character presented in this way will be unconvincing and flat. The most heinous villain was once a child; the most noble protagonist hides some secret transgression. It is sometimes as big a challenge to push the hero off their pedestal as to the find that one good quality in the evil-doer. But humans are complex and contradictory, and finding the fullness of a character makes them come to life.

When it comes to telling stories from our own lives, we need to tap into our biggest, wisest selves to write in a balanced way about people who have hurt or harmed us. How can we empathize with what they were feeling, understand the forces that shaped them and their behavior? This can be the hardest work because it means shifting our ideas about ourselves as well as that other person. It can take some time to get there. But it is also where the growth and healing take place.

I’m not saying writers should approve of bad behavior or soft-peddle it. I am saying that even someone who commits a terrible act still has humanity in them, and the writer becomes better the more they can reveal it.

In his play, Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams gives a line to a character, a nun, who is speaking to a defrocked and dissolute priest. He is anticipating her judgement, her condemnation of who he has become. Instead, she says to him, “Nothing human disgusts me.” This is the stance that best serves the literary writer. It’s our job to reveal as fully and deeply as we can the human condition, and in the process, we grow and deepen as well.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #2: Writing for ourselves/ writing for the reader

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #2: Writing for ourselves/ writing for the reader

When I delivered the first draft of my memoir, Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman’s Building, to my editor, Elaine Katzenberg, at City Lights Publishers, she responded with this astute comment: “Sometimes there is a difference between what a writer needs to say and what a reader needs to hear.” As a teacher, I’ve passed along this wisdom to scores of students, not only memoirists but poets and fiction writers as well.

The impulse to write often arises from a profound need—to express something about which we feel deeply, to share an experience that has been imprinted on our psyche, to make sense of something that has troubled us, to communicate something we want others to understand. We often struggle to find the words to capture these powerful ideas and sentiments, and when we’ve finally gotten it down on paper, we may feel our job is done. After all, the driving need that ignited the process for us has been fulfilled.

But as much as we may have labored to produce that initial draft, our work is not complete. Unless our intention is to write a journal, for which the audience is no one but ourselves, the next step is to figure out how to bring the work alive for the reader. The reader, who starts out as a stranger to the work and is drawn into intimacy with the work by encountering characters who come alive on the page, action that is riveting, themes that expand one’s ideas about the world, settings that one can enter and experience palpably.

I have great respect for journal keeping; it is a potent tool for self-discovery and self-comfort. When you write in your journal, everything you write is perfect, a perfect expression of yourself to yourself. But if you are wanting to engage other readers, you have to take them into consideration.

The reader doesn’t know what you know. They may not care about what you care about. They may not share your experience or your worldview. The reader wants to know what’s in it for them: what are they going to learn or gain or experience if they invest their time in your work? What will they find out about themselves from reading you?

One of the values of the writing workshop is that you get to find out what other people are getting from your work. Do they perceive the same meaning you want them to? Are there things that confuse them? Have you explained too much or too little? Have you enlisted their attention and have you managed to keep it? Have you gotten them to care?

We have to write that first draft that gratifies all our personal needs. But then we have to write the drafts that open up the work and allow the readers in.

When I submitted the first draft of my memoir to my editor at City Lights, her response let me know I had not yet managed to build the bridge to my reader. In subsequent drafts, I was able to pare away those things that were so personal only I cared about them, and to expand on things that would be of interest to someone who hadn’t lived the experience. Gently, she taught me the difference between what I needed to say and what a reader needed to hear, the difference between expression and communication.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

 

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #1: Writing badly

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #1: Writing badly

I’ve been teaching creative writing in various settings since 1977, and in that time I have worked with all kinds of students—those with a lot of experience and those just starting to think they might have something to say.

One of the most common things I see that stops us (and I include myself as a writer) is that we think the writing is supposed to be good, fully realized, maybe even brilliant, right away. We look to our fledging effort, our first sentence or our first draft, hoping that our ego will be gratified. If we find fault with this tentative beginning, many give up.

The truth is, it is the job of our first draft to be insufficient. Ideas need to figure themselves out, the music in the work needs to hear itself, we dig down and then need to dig deeper. Writing is a process and it gets better every time we return to it.

When an infant is just born, we don’t expect it to have perfect manners or mastery. The baby needs to stumble around, try things out, learn things and over time develop into a person.=

A work of writing too needs to be given time to grow, to change, to find itself. Let your writing be as “bad” as it needs to be to get born (sometimes I have to tell myself, “I’m going to write the shittiest first draft* anyone has ever seen”) and then you have something to work on.

 

* Anne Lamott talks about the “shitty first draft” in her book about writing, Bird by Bird.

Text by Terry Wolverton

Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.