Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Just Close Your Eyes

by Susan

Most humans are visual creatures, relying on our eyes to maneuver through the world. You have only to witness the explosion of YouTube videos, infographics, and pictures online to realize how much we communicate in the language of sight.

As writers, we cannot rely on eyes alone in our words. We need to use all the senses when we write a story to bring the reader fully into the moment. But it's easy to forget that we have more than sight to work with.

I'm as guilty of it as the next writer. If I pop off a scene or a poem in a hurry, it's all sight, sight, sight. That murder victim's dead body is infested with maggots... but magically, my character doesn't smell it? No, no, no. We can do better.

I was taught five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. They now say we have more. Your ears don't just hear; they orient you as to up, down, and wow this merry-go-round is spinning fast. Your muscles and bones sense where all your body parts are. You sense hunger and thirst.

When all the senses are engaged, the writing is more powerful, but the language can be difficult to find. Smell is the hardest one for me, and is quite possibly the most powerful. Smell taps into the deepest emotional centers of the brain. Yet, what does bacon smell like. Well, it smells like ... bacon. I have a hard time going beyond to remember that it's fragrant, smoky, meaty.

I find word lists useful. Here are a few for the non-sight senses:

I encourage you to ask yourself if you've hit all, or at least most, of them when you write. Make a checklist. You might even try to write something that leaves out descriptions of sight completely. I'll close with a poem where I tried that. I can't claim that sight didn't sneak in on this one, but it was a great exercise to force me out of my visual comfort zone:

Englewood Park Loop

Begin downhill, bike tires whirring
Down the short street with the house
That smells of tea boiled 5 minutes too long
Of bacon, of fried chicken sizzling

Go down Markey. Cars pass
So close exhaust brushes elbow
Down to the flats where finally
You need to put feet to pedals

Frederick Road is to the left
Take the turnoff a mile down it
Where gravel trucks rumble
Past Mrs. Matoski's old house

Down the narrow road of trees
Where I collided with my brother
When I was 12, broke his derailleur
And we walked three miles home

Stand on Route 40 before you cross
Warm asphalt under your Chuck Taylors
Road stretching from the eastern shore
To the Colorado mountains

Through the park on the one-way road
Humidity wraps your shoulders
Like a well-used bath towel
Tree shadows touch and cool

Back down Frederick by Monnin's Farm
Where they are kind and will give
A hot, thirsty child cool water
From the hose at the side of the house

From Frederick, retrace your steps
Back up the hills that began it
Thighs aching, lungs tired
To the house and the taste of sweet tea


  1. Very nice, Susan, particularly the poem at the end showing how one might use the senses. Smell is particularly acute because it connects directly to the brain where the smells are interpreted. The other senses have to go through various translators before reaching the brain. That's why the smell of a perfume or of baking bread can take us back years to a grandmother or her kitchen.

    And don't forget hearing the sound of your writing. It can help amplify the other senses, with the sizzle of bacon in the pan helping the reader smell it. Or seeing it on the page, short lines in poetry or short paragraphs in prose emphasizing speed or hurry or energy or excitement.

    Another great blog in Writing Wyoming. Thanks, Susan.

    1. Thanks, Art. It was one of the WyoPoets workshops that poem came out of. It might have been the year we had Lee Ann Roripaugh, but I'm not sure. Writing it brought back a lot of memories for me.

  2. Our workshops have offered me several poems too. Got two out of Lori Howe's workshops this past April, both pretty good ones. You did see that Lee Ann R is now South Dakota's poet laureate, didn't you?

    1. Rings a bell. I think I recall seeing that on Facebook. It's a well-deserved honor for her. She's also the poetry mentor at that Hill City Writers Workshop coming up in October. It's a little more intensive workshop, so you might take a look in terms of refining that book manuscript you're working on.

  3. Great post!! I always need to remind myself to bring in all of the senses. I agree, smells are the hardest to describe. Tastes too. Need to work on that! Loved the poem!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Chere! The great thing about smell is that difficult as it is, if you nail it, you're going straight for the emotional centers of the brain.

      Glad you liked the poem, too. :)

  4. Susan - thank you for reminding us to expand beyond sight. And for the website links for non-sight senses--helpful! It is like Art mentioned earlier about how we need to find just the right "color" for the descriptive word we are looking for. Lovely poem, too!

    1. Thanks so much, Mary! Appreciate your stopping by, and glad the word lists are of help.


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