Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Writing Prompt: Express the Forgotten Senses

This next writing exercise is meant to help bring out some of the "forgotten senses" in writing.  Often, writers focus so exclusively on the sights and the sounds of an experience that they neglect the essential senses of taste, touch, and smell...
Smells, in particular, offer a door to expressing some of the deeper emotions of our characters.  A human beings, we tend to deeply associate smell with memory.  The scents of fresh cut grass, apple pie cooling on the stove, and spoiled meat each trigger emotions depending on our experiences with these things.  For some, the cut grass means that it's time for a deep breath of nature - for others, that's the cue to reach for a tissue as eyes already start to itch.
For this exercise, I'd like you to first write down the first five smells that come to mind.  Don't worry about describing the smell at first - we just need the source (grass, apple pie, etc.)  If you think of more than five, certainly write them down.

Next, I'd like you to write down two things next to each smell.  The first is what the smell reminds you of.  (e.g. if I said "fresh xerox copy smell," does that take you back to an old job?  Or maybe to standardized exams in high school?)  Next, try to describe the smell for someone who's never smelled it before.  Note that this second part is often harder than the first - because smell is such a visceral sensation, we don't have as much language for smell as we do for sight or sound.  Often, we end up with phrases like "the grass smelled very green" because the smell triggers that image in our mind almost automatically.

Once you've done this for smell, repeat the exercise for touch and taste - write five examples of each, including their emotional import and a quick description.  For example:

Touch: soft cork board, the 70s-style front to the counter bar in my Dad's old apartment, crumbly and squishy but firm.

Taste: Campbell's Tomato Juice, airline flights over 30,000 feet with the clouds outside the window, thick and soupy and vaguely tart.

Once you've done this, look for overlaps in the emotional triggers.  Chances are, more than one of these will remind you of the same place or the same situation.  (Do a taste and a smell both remind you of Mom's kitchen?  Or maybe that awful cafeteria you'll never visit again?)  And it's all right if the overlaps are indirect.  I might, for example, write a story like this:

I arrive at my Dad's house after a long flight, with the dry aftertaste of tomato juice still in my throat, my nose clogged with the snot from the "oh-so-fresh" smells of grass and pollen.  And then, there on the driveway, they've left my favorite piece of furniture outside to rot in the sun.  I run up, pressing my fingers to the soft cork - I can feel it crumbling under my faint grip.  Bits of the stuff stick to the sweat on my palms, and I can't rub it off.  "Dad?  You're throwing this out?"  Then my dad looks at me strangely.  "I threw that thing out twenty years ago - why are are you writing about it now?"

Once you've selected three-to-five related sensory stimuli, go ahead and start writing about the time or the place they remind you of.  Don't worry about turning this into a story - just see what comes up, going back to the senses if you're not sure what to write next.  If you're pressed for time, set a timer for ten minutes and write as fast as you can.

Looking for more to write about? Would you like some visual prompts? This book is well reviewed on Amazon - it offers a nice combination of photos with specific (and challenging) prompts to get you writing.


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