When we’re drawing from life experiences to create art, integrating the senses into our work will amplify it. Otherwise, how can the person we are sharing the experience with actually get it?
Without senses, art wouldn’t have a pulse.
I remember learning about the five senses a lot as a child in school. There were fun activities and games to help us understand each of them. But as I grew older, the exercises for the senses disappeared to make room for more serious subjects.
And in the workplace—well, you don’t exactly dilly-dally with the five senses too much. Can you imagine? “In today’s meeting, we’re going to divide up into teams, explore our senses together, and come up with a strategy to implement them in Q3.”
Hmmm…not so much.
As an adult, I have found my way back to reconnecting with the senses through writing. And, I am thankful to continue driving forward my creativity—even when I have very little time to spend with it—so that I can appreciate how incredible each sense truly is.
As artistic people, we have to pay attention to everything—always the observer, the realist, the daydreamer, the romantic, the cynic, the philosopher. If we don’t, our creativity will carry emptiness around wherever it goes.
Help Them Hear It
The whole reason I’m writing this blog post is because of sound. Last weekend I discovered something very cool and I thought I would pass it along to my creative thinkers out there. Mr. H, being a musician/DJ, was equally captivated.
I was hammering away on my third draft…
The night was clear with a bright moon illuminating the dirty sidewalks below—the discarded cigarette still burning in the gutter, the playful plastic bag skipping across the heavier garbage, the chewing gum dotting the concrete skin like a leper, and the questionably alive ExComm curled up next to his shopping basket filled to the brim with his life’s belongings.
Then, I thought…I need a streetcar in here immediately. Even though we have streetcars all over Portland, I realized I hadn’t actually heard one in a while—months, I’m sure.
I was jamming on my editing, so I didn’t want to run over to one to listen to it like I crazy lady. So, I searched for sounds and I found a gem…SoundSnap.
I searched for streetcar, I listened, and I wrote…
A streetcar rattled across the tracks, on its final journey before curfew. Echoing through the city buildings, a woman’s eerie mechanical voice announced the Couch Street stop and the streetcar’s rumble quieted as it slowed down.
Help Them Taste It
Unless they’re robots or not human in some other way, occasionally our characters need to eat or drink something. This shouldn’t be seen as a logistical addition to our novels.
Think about how lovely a cup of tea can taste on a cold morning, or how pleasurable a piece of chocolate can taste after a long day—taste is another opportunity to deeply connect with the reader by conjuring memories of sustenance.
Vi pushed her feet against the cliff to see if it was safe to return. A burning smell lingered in the air, strong enough that she could taste it inside her dry mouth. The knots in her stomach hardened as the new threat became palpable. The grass was on fire.
Help Them Touch It
This can get especially daring if you’re writing a sex scene, where the goal is to arouse the reader if you’re really good at your job, or at the very least make them blush if they’re reading it in public.
I remember writing a sex scene on a lunch break at work once, and it was damn awkward. That’s a good thing though, isn’t it? Chances are, if you’re describing physical sensations in such an honest way, it will come across to your reader who sort of just jumped into bed with you.
Vi ran the palms of her hands up the front of her thighs, enjoying the firm muscle beneath the feminine flesh. She explored her stomach and her backside, satisfied with the way everything felt—strong, but also soft. As Vi began to feel more comfortable with her own touch, protected by the darkness in the tank, she forgot inhibition.
Help Them Smell It
I have an acute sense of smell and I always say it’s a gift and a curse. Food tastes amazing, but cigarettes make me want to puke and die in the middle of the sidewalk.
While writing about food, we don’t say “yum,” we show it by the way the man closes his eyes to take a deep inhale of his dinner at a restaurant. When the woman is walking down the dark alley, instead of the cliché of hearing footsteps, perhaps she smells a stinky cigarette and that scent scares her because she realizes she’s not alone.
Try going beyond the obvious ones like perfume or coffee, and use unusual scents to invoke an experience.
He was bald in the middle, with black greasy hair that was long on the sides. He looked like a worm, the kind that smelled pungent when it rained.
Help Them See It
With writing, arguably more than the other senses, we focus on describing what we are seeing in our own minds—what our characters witness unfolding before their eyes. That has to translate to the reader, so that they can see a colorful world beyond the rows of black letters resting on white pages.
This doesn’t have to be overkill, like the mailbox in front of the house. Unless her husband is fighting in a war in a faraway place and the only way they can communicate is through letters (remember those?).
Maybe it’s been weeks since she’s heard from him and she wonders if he’s dead or alive. She watches the mailbox from the moment she wakes up, and glances at it one last time before she cries herself to sleep. THEN describe the holy hell out of that mailbox.
Bright buildings nestled against the wide river, while sleeping volcanoes topped with snow loomed in the great distance. The many bridges of Port City each had their own character—steely, colorful, plain, modern, and antiquated. They had been the victims of a demolition long ago to keep the citizens trapped inside the city. Only foundational bones of the structure remained, suspended mid-air, hugging the banks of the sweeping river to stay upright. The center of each bridge rested at the bottom of the same watery grave.
It’s important to keep an open mind, to evolve as artists, and not be too stubborn in our ways. We’re pretty lucky to have such amazing technology at our fingertips. And though an mp3 or a YouTube video can never replace real life experiences, boundless tools are ours for the taking.
If technology isn’t your thing and you’re struggling with incorporating any of the senses into your books, take a day to devote to each one and record them in a journal. You can do this anywhere at anytime, whether it relates to your work in progress or not.
The worst that can happen? You might discover something very awesome.
Do you write or create art using all of the senses? Or, do you tend to focus on a couple?