As I continue on my journey of constant learning, I'm reminded at almost every step of how forgetful we humans can be. We learn a lesson and think, This is great!, yet as time goes by, the knowledge falls away until we come across the lesson again.
Here's a case in point:
I know the importance of including the five senses in order to make scenes more vivid, which in turn involves readers to a much higher degree, and have even written about and lectured on the topic. Yet only today while reading writer and editor Sol Stein's chapter on the five senses in Stein on Writing, I realized I have backed off studying and portraying touch, taste and smell, senses writers typically forget.
The thought occurred after reading an exercise Stein proposes: to listen to a cat and phonetically spell the animal's various sounds. I don't have a cat, but immediately understood Stein's point: if we stopped to think about how something really sounds, feels, tastes, looks and smells, we'd find that the reality has little to do with the cliches we carelessly dredge up and drop into place while preoccupied with writing. We're so concerned about the overall story, we throw in a meow when necessary, even though the word bears almost no resemblance to the many sounds a cat makes.
Another exercise Stein suggests is to describe the shape and feel of your keychain. Can't do the exercise without reaching into your pocket or purse for a quick feel? Most of us couldn't, which leads to his second point:
We might be average folks in our daily lives, but as writers, we've got to be exceptional in our ability to slow down and scrutinize a scene via all five senses, which means tossing out the cliches—
• the dusky smell of a rose
• the scritch-scratch of her pantyhose as she walked
• his prickly, unshaven face
• the sour taste of bile
—in favor of sensory details that drop readers a mile deeper into the action.
For a deeper appreciation of the senses, Stein suggests Diane Ackerman's The Natural History of the Senses.
Thus concludes this lesson on the importance of re-learning lessons, no matter how basic. And if you happen to miss this entry, fear not. I'll no doubt be reiterating the subject again, and again, and again.
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