Tuesday, October 13, 2015


guest post by Sheila Bender

Lynn here:

Let me introduce you to the author of today's guest post...

Sheila Bender is founder of WritingItReal.com, a community and resource for those who write from personal experience. A poet, memoirist and personal essayist, she offers online classes and often teaches at writers’ conferences.

Sheila's two newest books are now available on line under the Writing it Real banner: Writing In A Convertible with the Top Down and Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief.

After my stepdaughter died in 2012 my writing life seemed frozen. I decided I needed something to warm me up, so I registered for an online class with Sheila. The class, Writing Healthy Starts, did the trick. The writing exercises that Sheila shared with my online classmates and me were sparks that got the writing fire going again, and for that I am forever grateful. 

Let’s see what Sheila has to say that will kindle the fire today… 


When we talk about not having enough time to write, it's time to spend a few minutes on some exercises. In small bits of time, we can sharpen our skill in evoking experience as well as our trust in associations. 

This helps us not only want to arrange longer stretches of time for writing but also to enjoy our writing time and its results much, much more. 


First and foremost, creative writing is a re-creation of experience--experience we had or are having in the world. Experience is lived through the five senses--it is what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch that add up to form our attitudes, help us take actions and create dreams. If your writing does not include details and images that appeal to the five senses, you will not be immersed in your experience when you are writing about it. Without the necessary immersion, you will become disinterested in your own efforts because your words will seem shallow and dull and ultimately short-circuit your ability to mine your experience for insight and deeper knowledge. 

Imagine you think a philodendron in your living room is “beautiful.” As a writer you need to evoke an experience of beautiful, not sum it up with that intangible word. If you say, "The leaves on the philodendron in my living room had variegations that reminded me of tributaries on the maps I loved to read when I was in grade school," you are setting up experience that can not be gotten to by labeling the leaves beautiful. 

A way to learn how to create sensory images that will lead to useful and surprising writing is to practice using comparisons (similes) in your writing. A facility with similes (and ultimately metaphor) will enliven your writing and your view of what you are writing about. It will allow you to access more and more of your experience. You can practice this simply by saying one thing looks like, smells like, tastes like, sounds like or feels like another thing: 

A mirror looks like a lake. 

A cornflake in a bowl of milk looks like a dolphin swimming in the ocean. 

A shoe with its lace untied looks like a toaster with its electric cord unplugged. 

Working with the like construction, you encourage your simile-making mind to tell you what you might want to be writing about: 

I sit at my desk like a marionette with no one holding the strings. 

The 30 student papers on poetry in my briefcase are a thick sandwich. 

Dressed up in the front seat of my husband's convertible without a scarf on my head, I see my hair in the visor mirror as the madly waving fronds of a stately palm tree. 

It may seem a little harder with sound than when evoking feelings and visual images, but try it: 

The sound of a train going by in the distance is like the sigh of a ghost. 

The ocean crashing against the shore sounds like the blood in my veins heard through a stethoscope.

The tones and tunes of cell phones ringing in the purses and pockets of Los Angeles restaurant diners at lunchtime make even the most sedate and refined establishments sound like carnivals. 

Now do it with smell: 

The smell of clothes fresh from a dryer is like the smell of bread baking. 

The smell of the charcoal grill after the fire's died down is like my girlfriend's clothes after the fire in her apartment. 

Smell of Jasmine flowers as I walk by is the smell of my grandmother's dress as I clung to the folds.

Write what you taste in this way, too. Instead of the usual bitter, sweet, salty or bland use this exercise to more fully describe the tastes of things in your experience. 

Oxtail soup tastes like already chewed gum. 

That freeze dried vegetable patty tasted like dirty socks. 

Think of something you are very familiar with touching--an article of clothing, soapy dishwater, a pot scrubber, your cat, a garden rake, the driver's wheel of your car, for instance. Write about the feel of it in detail, using simile: 

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 because I like feeling like a goldfish must in a bowl by the sunlight from a nearby window. 

I am surprised by how much I like 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 and 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 leg begin to itch. I want to take the hose off then and when it is at my ankles, I feel the downward pull, a sensation like I have in my stomach when the elevator goes up. 

In addition to practice creating similes, try this exercise for gathering sensory information: 

Write down three smells you are aware of right now--i.e. your soap, 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. Choose one and think of what the smell reminds you of. 

Write about your memory starting out by saying, "I sit here and smell _________. This smell brings me back to ______________. That's when I_________. 

Here's my outcome: 

I sit here and I smell the pages and binding glue on my new book. This smell brings me back to flour paste and paper mache 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 over them, smell of a wet dog, I think. Somehow our teachers knew when it was time for us declare the musical instruments done. Somehow the glass got smashed without our damaging the paper mache 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, the sound of multi-vitamins in a jar when I lift them from the breakfast table. 

Keep writing for 10 or 15 minutes remembering to include more smells from that remembered time.

Because taste is an underused sense in our writing, here's another way to practice using it: Put something edible in your mouth. Keep it there awhile before you chew it. What does it taste like so far? Then 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 it and describe the taste left in your mouth. 

An example: Soybean 

I roll you around with my tongue and you are wet from the rinsing I gave you and you are cold from the refrigerator so you taste a little like a glass of water. I bite into you and I taste the smallest flavor of salt, as if there were a single tear on my tongue. When I chew you up good, I am surprised by the taste of something just a bit like the smell in the stagnant puddle the gardener's hoses leave at the foot of my apartment's driveway. It is so vague, though, that it is not at all unpleasant. I swallow and you leave the taste of grass when I was a child, sucking on a blade in summer

You can also practice using the sense of taste when you are trying to define intangible emotions: 

My anger is cayenne pepper in my mouth. 

When I make my college students laugh, it's as if I have seltzer bubbles in my mouth. 

My children's hopes and dreams taste like vanilla and honey in gently warmed milk. 

Then work with using other senses to evoke what you might have only used intangible words to name. You'll find that your descriptions of experience seem accurate and often also surprising.

Lynn here again

Thanks Sheila! I’m fanning some flames as we speak. 

I'd like to offer a challenge to our blog readers: 

If you are so inclined, post something in the comments section that came to you as a result of Sheila's encouragement to tiptoe through the senses.

I will if you will!


  1. Thank you, Lynn, for giving us this advice from Sheila. Great advice. In the haiku class I am co-teaching, we ask our students to observe carefully and make notes. Then consider pouring the observations into the 17 syllables of a haiku. The beauty of the haiku, and it's difficulty, is fitting it into that short form. It sharpens the senses and the poetic mind. Great post, Lynn. Again, thanks.

  2. The coffee in my cup is a blackened sea I want to dive into, want to seek the bottom of, want to plumb until I can no longer hold my breath. I want to take its bitterness into my veins, feel it all liquid and fire and life coursing through them.

    OK, OK, I really, really like coffee. ;)

    1. Gee, I never would have guessed. Glad you clarified that, Susan. Can I have a cup while you're pouring?

    2. If I keep reading Susan's post, I'll have so much caffeine in my veins I won't be able to sleep tonight!

      Here's what came from my brain after Sheila's promptings:
      * She gave me a curdled milk smile...
      * Aspen leaves applaud the Wyoming wind...
      * My mood today is like a helium balloon two days after the party...
      * The tea tasted like a stale washcloth...

    3. I'll grind the beans right now, Art.

      Lynn, I'll pass on that cup of stale washcloth tea, if I may.

  3. Really great post! I came ups with:
    *The pine trees on my land smell like the mountain town I first lived in with my husband, fresh with joy and new beginnings.
    *Wood fire smoke tastes like burned s'mores mixed with snowed-in comfort.


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