Friday, May 13, 2005

in the realm of the senses

Last night, Nikki and I were talking about my most recent experience at my barber shop. My barber, Raul, had doused me with a new aftershave that I found difficult to describe. I flailed for words, sadly giving up and using the vague adjective “masculine” to express myself. Now, for me, this is really sad. Certainly there exists a plethora of words to describe this scent – but I had none (I am similarly at a loss with wine, unable to wrap my head around the notion of “toasty undertones”).

Writers create an experience in words for the reader. Description, generally used in prose, is a basic requirement except for the most experimental or avant garde texts. The ability to describe is necessary imbue the text with the illusion of reality and thus engage the reader. The fundamentals are found commonly in something shared by most people – the senses, and it makes sense to gain a level of proficiency in being able to describe these. Then, depending on your writing goals, you can use one or a combination of several to enhance your text (this is most evident in the novel, where the author has the luxury of space to develop the narrative – but is also present in the shortest of flash fiction, where mood or a state of being or location is important).

What you see. It is easiest to describe what you see. Your eyes perceive light and shadow, the multitude of colors, the expressions on people’s faces, motion and stillness, physical states like ripeness or age, a process, the list goes on. Action is primarily described visually.

One evening, Sonia climbed down the polished stairs, hurried across the cold living room floor in her bare feet, and pulled a tall chair in the kitchen to look at the face in the window again. It was certainly no one she recognized, and in her seven years of existence she was convinced she could identify all the people who had crossed into her life, from the swollen infant in the bassinette next to her in hospital nursery to the woman – her face a constellation of moles - in the pale blue Camry who stopped in front of their house the day before yesterday, asking for directions. The face had furrowed brows, slit for eyes and four visible teeth.

What you hear. Sound is used to great effect in fiction. Descriptions of footsteps in suspense or horror stories, for example, help build up the tension. The melancholic urgings of a sentimental song, described effectively, imbue a story with a particular mood. Volume, rhythm, cadence, emotional delivery of dialogue and such, all find their home here (incidentally, it's the last sense to go before you die). Speech tags are used to describe how the speaker says his line

“Don’t,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.

“Get out,” she replied harshly, leaning back into her seat, an unwanted hiss accompanying her words.

What you touch. The sense of touch is powerful, able to immediately evoke memory or vicarious experience. Texture, temperature, pleasure and pain, bodily states such as arousal, illness or fatigue – all these and more fall in this category.

“What can you tell me about love?” she asked, moving her fingers down his spine, counting each vertebra as she coaxed them into feeling. She paused then to pour more oil onto the small of his back and the curvature of his buttocks, denying the liquid any routes of escape by quickly rubbing it into his skin.

Helplessly, the man felt his unbidden arousal as she sought deep muscle in tight focused circles. He tried to shift position to relieve his discomfort, but her fingers rode his motion like old seafarers sailing in familiar oceans, adjusting, adapting, never breaking their union of skin.

What you taste. You need to go beyond the five basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (‘delicious’) and explore the many ways to express the experience of taste.

“Bring all the duhat we have in the kitchen, in the storeroom, in the pantry,” she instructed loudly. Within moments the servants returned with four large baskets brimming with the violet fruit. My mother took the baskets and set them on the floor in front of me. I remember not understanding what was going to happen, wracked by tears that caused my entire body to shudder.

“You have brought shame to this house,” she told me, in a tone that defied any denial. With a quick motion she took a duhat and forced it into my mouth. “Eat it.”

I struggled to chew, moving the fruit back and forth quickly between my teeth and spitting out the seed into my hands. My mouth was overwhelmed with the flavors of guilt and anger, a sea of sickening sweetness that violated everything that I was.

What you smell. Ah, my waterloo. Musk and sweat, woods and sunlight, libido and the passage of time, Gudam Garam cigarettes and your daughter returning chlorinated from an afternoon swim – all these can be described by smell.

The shop was empty of people when he arrived, but filled to the rafters with all manner of jars, pots and woven baskets; vials, censers and Chinese incense stick holders; beads, feathers, and boxes and bowls of various sizes, shapes and colors. A peculiar scent permeated the room, swirling slowly around a large storm lantern on the counter – the mingled smells of an eclipse, stolen kisses, and newly-opened luggage fresh from an airplane’s belly.

What you feel within. I consider this part of our senses. Vertigo, the invisible hold of gravity when the elevator you’re riding suddenly goes down three stories unexpectedly, a roller coaster ride, a broken heart. Describe them all.

At one exquisite interval during her rapid ascent into the evening sky, Maria Isabella thought she spied the precise tower where Lorenzo du Vicenzio ei Salvadore, the Stargazer, must live and work. She felt the exuberant joy of her lost youth bubble up within her and mix with the fiery spark of love she had kept alive for sixty years, and in a glorious blaze of irrepressible happiness she waved her free hand with wild abandon, shouting the name that had been forever etched into her heart.

The key is to not to be lazy . Avoid the cliché and descriptions used by other author’s you’ve read. Write your own – and begin the in realm of the senses.


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