Using The Senses

The Wild Words on the page use a range of sensory data: colours, smells, tastes, sounds, textures.

Colour does not predominate, but takes its appropriate place. Like the experience of watching a film, the world created is vivid and alive. The words stay true to the writers’ maxim ‘show, don’t tell’. Using sensory detail is one way of ‘showing’ events, of enabling the listener or reader to feel they are there, experiencing what the narrator is experiencing. In doing this, the scene and characters imprint powerfully on the page and on the readers’ mind.

‘The Waves’ by Virginia Woolf, includes fabulous use of sensory impressions.

Flower after flower is specked on the depths of green. The petals are harlequins. Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath. The flowers swim like fish made of light upon the dark, green waters. I hold a stalk in my hand. I am the stalk. My roots go down to the depths of the world, through earth dry with brick, and damp earth, through veins of lead and silver.

How do you feel as you read the above extract? When we read something, the physical experience is no different from if we’d experienced it first hand. As the animal that we are, when we read a list, the Wernicke’s area of the brain, involved in processing language, will light up. But when we read a description containing all the senses, many other regions of the brain get involved, including the auditory, visual and olfactory areas. The listener or reader is offered a much richer and enjoyable experience when we bring the senses into play.  They also remember our words for a much longer time.

Tracking The Wild Words

As the storyteller, in order to track the wild words, we must practice to awaken all our senses, and then be alive to the data offered up to us by our environment. Separately, we must also work to expand our vocabulary of words that describe sensory experience. When we practice experiencing and fitting to language the vivid sensory impressions around us, then they take their place in our imaginary repertoire, ready to be called upon for any story occasion, fiction or non-fiction. We use them instinctually. Then our stories and writing start to behave like the wild animal, like The Cat. They are wild words.

Apart from the powerful effect it has on the reader, being aware of the sensory impressions around us, and using them in oral stories and on the page, has an important benefit for the storyteller.  As leading neuroscientists such as Jaak Panksepp now recognise, contact with the senses helps to ground and dissipate fears about the writing process. Fear is a product of thoughts about the past and the present. When we are literally ‘brought to our senses’, we are much less frightened. This is an important step on the road to being a great storyteller. So ground your writing, to ground your fears, and that, in turn will ground your stories further.

The Fears

As writers I believe we have a fear of being in the real world. The sort of person (and I include myself in this), who uses their imagination to escape when real life is too much, is the sort of person who becomes a storyteller. Nothing wrong with that, it’s a healthy strategy for keeping us safe when life is difficult. But to tell stories really well we need to cultivate the opposite also, to find a balance between the inspiration that comes from our inner worlds, and that which comes from outside.

Contact with the present moment is quite scary. We realise we can’t control it. We begin to notice unpleasant thoughts, and see and hear things that frighten us. We are afraid that we will be attacked and destroyed (by our memories as much as by external threats). We often choose to isolate ourselves, because we feel safer. It’s more comfortable to live in a place of mild (or severe) dissociation, or retreat into our imaginations. 

When we do this we’re no different to the caged tiger. His world is colourless and textureless. His sense of smell, taste, hearing, touch and sight are blunted by years of absence of stimulus. In the same way he no longer has access to the sensory clues that in the wild would keep him safe, we no longer have the vocabulary to describe our sensory experiences. We can fear confronting this truth. But, of course, we never will have the source material for the vocabulary, unless we go out and look for those wild words.

In order to avoid the fears, our rational minds tell us many things. We convince ourselves that we feel adequately in touch with senses as it is, or that there’s enough excitement in our whitewashed room to be going on with. Or, we tell ourselves that we’re just preparing to start writing for real, once we get the opportunity…

Fear On The Page

If we are afraid to experience and write about sensory impressions, it shows on the page. When we stop using sensory impressions, we are forced to fall back on stereotypes and clichés, to parrot what others have previously said and written. The same things happen in casual conversation, as well as oral storytelling and performance poetry.

How can we expect to create a world in full colour (smell etc.), either in fiction or non-fiction, when we don’t live in full colour (smell etc.)? Is it any wonder that our stories are dull, colourless, textureless, abstract and ungrounded? It’s time to stop believing the chattering mind. The opportunity is now. The wild world and the wild words are out there waiting.

Now it’s your turn to track and find this aspect of the wild words. I’m with you all the way.


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The photograph at the top of this article is courtesy of Peter Reid.