Sunday, May 06, 2012

Writing Through the Senses « DIY MFA

I love this website!
It's fun and easy to use and she gives great prompts and exercises.  This post is about something I have been working on lately:  writing from the senses.
I recently took a writing class from Madelyn Kent in Tel Aviv and she had us do exercises of this sort over and over. Madelyn is a playwright and she believes that the best writing comes from setting and emotions overlapping one another, which creates a area of conflict for the characters to workout their goals.
I found these kind of writing exercises makes my writing more "show" and less "tell", more now and grounded, instead of passive and once-removed reporting.

See what sense writing can do for you!

Writing Through the SensesWriting Through the Senses

As mentioned in Monday’s post, one great way to get new story ideas or kick-start your writing is to use the five senses.  In addition to helping spice up flat descriptions, the senses are also a great source of inspiration.  Here’s a short sampler of ways you can engage the five senses to get a new perspective in your writing.
This sense forces us to focus.  When we listen–really listen–to something, we zoom in and focus on it in depth.  It is important to practice listening and not just letting sounds wash over us, so we train our minds to pay attention.  This is the first of the senses that I always turn to because once I can focus, the writing comes naturally.
Warm up your writing chops by listening to some music.  The Planets by Gustav Holst is a great piece for just about any writer because each movement captures a completely different mood.  On Friday, I’ll share more of my favorite pieces of writing music.
To hear the different moods in Holst’s The Planets, click on the following links:
Mars     Venus      Mercury      Jupiter      Saturn      Uranus     Neptune

This is probably the one of the five senses that we use most often.  When we describe things in our writing, it’s easy to forget the other senses and focus only on what we see, because vision is so powerful.  But there are other ways we can use sight to inspire us as well.
Look at a painting or photograph and try to figure out the story behind it.  Who is the main character?  Why is he there?  If is photo or painting is a snapshot of a moment, what happened just before that moment?  What happens after?
Another exercise I love is going to a paint store and browsing the paint chips.  A color can sum up a mood in a way that would require dozens of words.  In fact, I often give my protagonists a “signature color” and post the paint chip on my bulletin board for as long as I’m working with that character.

Touch forces us to notice the little things.  When we close our eyes and ears, and rely only on our fingers, the ordinary things in life become extraordinary.  Try this: close your eyes and pick up a small object (a paper clip, a small stone, a seashell, etc.).  Let your fingers explore the object and notice all the minute details.  By examining a object through touch alone, you will notice things about it that you would not have picked up on otherwise.

This sense is all about interaction.  When we taste something, we gobble it up, drink it in and experience it from the inside out.  Taste also elicits very visceral reactions.  If we don’t like the taste of something, we know right away and we know it in our core.  When I need to access raw emotion, I turn to taste because there’s an immediacy to it that none of the other senses seems to capture in the same way.
Give your writing a jolt by tasting something that gives you a strong visceral response.  I often turn to jelly beans when I need to access this one of the five senses.

Finally, there’s smell.  This sense is unique because of all the senses, smell is the only one that has a direct pathway between the receptor (in this case the nose) and the memory center of the brain.  Think about it, smells often bring up unexpected memories or make you remember things that had been buried for years.  I know that whenever I smell one particular scent (which I can’t name because it’s a combination I can’t even describe) it makes me think of my grandmother’s house.  Smell is a powerful sense because it’s loaded with so much memory and emotion.

When I turn to smell, I use it to access memories.  This lavender lotion I use reminds me of a vacation I took years ago to Scandinavia.  The smell of coconut reminds me of drinking coconut water on the beaches of Brazil when visiting family.  If I need to remember a moment or put my character in a setting I visited long ago, I try to draw on a smell to bring that place to life.

The senses are such a powerful source of inspiration for writers that I have actually designed an entire writing course based on the five senses.  This course works equally well with adults or kids as young as elementary school because the senses are something that writers of all ages can latch onto and “get” pretty quickly.  For this reason, when I really need to jump-start my creativity, I often turn to the five senses early in the brainstorming process.  This is also why I thought it was important to introduce this concept early on because it’s something we’ll be talking about a lot as we continue through DIY MFA.

  • Do you use the five senses for inspiration?  
  • Which of the senses do you turn to most often?  
  • Which ones could use a little more attention?  
  • This week, choose one that you use less often and do something with with it to inspire some writing.

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