As a writer we are constantly looking for ways to describe things. We are always consumed with the inevitable questions of how phrases sound, if sentences flow, if we are getting to the point. Always trying to get good sentence that will get our readers intrigued, but there is the power of the senses. One of the best lessons I have learned from the MFA program at Antioch University LA came from Nalo Hopkinson, who said, “Don’t just describe things: make your reader feel as they are eating, living, breathing this life you are telling them about.”
As a writer I will admit that sometimes I overuse my sense of touch and sight. Always saying things such as “and it felt cold and looked metallic.” While sentences such as these are needed and necessary, we must not forget our other three senses.
This past month in my mentor group, one of the discussion questions that came up had to do with our senses. We had just finished reading The Golden Compass, and my classmate asked how Pullman had been able to draw us into his world-building through the senses. Of course I said something like “The daemon she carried with her all the time,” (you have to read it to know what a daemon is) but she responded by saying that for her it was the sense of smell. This made me think a lot about how Pullman had indeed accomplished such a description of scenes that were essential to the story, but not by describing or telling us how something felt to the touch, since it was not necessary. He did it with his nose, because we already know what a fish frying looks like, even tastes like, so there’s no need to describe how it looked or tasted. We already know what a fire looks like and so there’s need to describe it, but to remember the smell of it. Ah, now that instantly takes us to a place of comfort and warmth when we see warm fires, frying fish, families, the smell of smokeleaf. He guides our imagination in a very elegant way, and the rest is up to our creativity.
As I write this from my vacation spot, my sense of smell is rudely awakened in a good way. When I step off the plane into a hot tropical country, such as Costa Rica, I remember my nose. The wet earth, the cool mist on top of a mountain, the humidity that you can only guess brings out the smell in everything from the flowers to the rancid fruit on the ground. And the ocean? Well, for that, my writer friends, I suggest you take a little trip to the ocean and blindfold yourself for a while. Sit there and don’t think, just feel and smell.