August 1, 2021: Writing the Five Senses
I have been without my sense of smell for just over 5 weeks now. That was when I passed out, hit my head, fractured my skull, and had a brain bleed. That all sounds horrendous, and it was definitely frightening, but after a couple of days in the hospital under the care of phenomenal nurses and doctors, I went home with a headache and a black eye, but the bleed had stopped and all else seemed normal. It was when I got home that I realized I could no longer smell.
A side effect of a concussion, this seems to be the only lingering impact of the fall. And while of the 5 senses, I would definitely rather be without smell than any of the others, it is quite the adjustment to live without your sense of smell.
As a cook and baker, I did not realize how much I depended on my sense of smell when I am cooking. While I look at the clock and occasionally set timers, I often depend on the smell of the cookies, bread, or bacon to pull me into the kitchen and peek into the oven.
As a gardener, I did not realize how much the smells in the yard are part of my experience, until I did not have them. When watering my herbs, I will often rub my hand over their leaves and sniff. The smell of the fresh cut grass or the peaty smell of the dirt as I pull up weeds- these are things I no longer experience when I am in my garden now.
The good news is that this is most likely not permanent and my sense of smell will return. However, this has certainly made me more aware of the millions of people who have permanent loss of one or more of their senses.
It has also made me more cognizant of the way we, as authors, write descriptions. Are we using more than one sense? Is our description sight heavy? Are nuances of smell and sound included? Are tactile details implied? As I pondered this in terms of the current novel I am drafting, I realized that it may be time to pull out some writing activities I have done in the past with my students or used in conference presentations with writers and writers’ groups, that pertain to writing descriptions.
One writing exercise is to pull out one of the scenes in your latest work-in-progress and take a quick assessment. In your descriptions, have you included what your character is seeing? Feeling (tactile feeling, not emotional feeling)? Smelling? Tasting? Hearing? Obviously, it is not possible or advantageous to include all 5 senses in every scene or chapter, but are we using enough of a variety to engage as many senses as possible?
Another is to look back at a description you may have jotted down in your journal or notebook. What senses were employed in your description? Our default sense is usually sight, as most descriptions start with what something looks like. But if we stop there, we deny our reader a full experience.
These activities will give you insight into your natural tendencies as a writer, but to take it a step further, try some writing exercises where you consciously employ the senses. Start by thinking of a specific place and describe it in terms of just one sense. Then add another sense, and another, until you have used as many as you can to describe that particular place.
Another activity I use with my students is to describe a place in one sentence, focusing on only one sense, and making sure not to name the place. For this exercise, start with the sense of smell or sound. Students love sharing these descriptions with each other and seeing if they can guess the place being described. Another way to expand this is to give them a picture of something, and ask them to describe the smell or the sound that the picture brings to mind.
Helping our readers to more deeply experience our writing, be sure to employ all of the senses!