Monday, March 26, 2012

Sensory Descriptions: Writing memoir through your 5 senses

As an artist’s brush strokes begin to take shape, giving way to images, we begin to see the overall picture. Writer’s brush strokes, words carefully strung together, give way to eloquently written sentences. Written with enough detail, the writer, too, paints a picture; only, we paint with ours words

Sensory descriptions paint a picture in the reader's mind

As I used to share with my 5th grade students, in your writing you want to “show not tell” your story and the most effective way to do this is to write through your five senses: sight, sound, scent, touch, and taste. If you can capture a memory through one or more of these senses, you, too, can paint a picture.

Approaching your writing through sensory descriptions will help you capture the essence of your memories:

Sight: This is probably the most commonly used sense when providing a description because we tend to recount events and incidents as we have seen them. When writing memoir, try focusing on the little details one might overlook, such as the color of someone’s eyes or the shadows cast across the wall. These types of unexpected descriptions will stir up emotion in your reader.

Sound: Sound may be the least memorable of our five senses if you do not actively exercise it. An activity I have done with my students to help them tap into their sense of sound is to take them outside and have them close their eyes while we just sit listen. It’s amazing how much more we hear when our other senses are dulled. Train yourself to pay more attention to sounds around you and you will be able to draw from this often untapped source of sensory description.

Scent: Research shows that scent is closely related to memory and emotion, making it a rich resource in connecting with your readers. The olfactory cortex (we’re talking brain regions here) is relatively close to the amygdala, where emotional experiences are processed, and the hippocampus, which is implicated in memory. The proximity of these regions lends to the argument that scent evokes memory. For this reason, tapping into the aromas and odors from our past, will help evoke emotion in your reader.

Touch: Paying attention to the consistency and texture of the world around us opens up a whole new world of sensory descriptions. The smoothness of a baby’s cheek; your rough, calloused fingertips snagging on your sweater as you pull it over your head; the way chap stick glides across your lips; these are all details that provide your reader with the true, unfiltered experience of your life.

Taste: Many writers tend ignore flavor, but the range of tastes we encounter make it an excellent source of sensory descriptions for our writing. There are five main flavor experiences: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami, the birth word for the flavor we know better as savory. Sweet and bitter tastes are both detected, and distinguished, through the G-protein receptors found on our tongues. Sweet and bitter both produce an explosion of flavor in our mouths, one a pleasant experience and the other a shocking one. Sour flavors come bursting forth when we taste acidic foods, such as vinegar and citrus, and saltiness is detected by the presence of sodium ions. Umami, or savoriness, is most related to meaty foods, rich in proteins.

Of course, you don’t want to overdo it with a sight, sound, scent, touch and taste description in every sentence or even every paragraph. As with any writing, it’s about striking a balance. Give the reader just enough detail to paint a picture but leave some room for interpretation, or the reader might get bored.

I’m always looking for new ways to weave description into my writing. How do you incorporate your five senses into your writing?

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