Note from Jane: In today’s guest post, writer Benjamin Vogt discusses how evoking sensory details in writing can banish a writer’s fears.
Writers are scaredy-cats. We go in fear of lots of stuff, like sharing our true thoughts or wondering how others will think of us. We obsess too often, or too long, over the ethereal matter that curtails our power and potential. With the door closed, the room silent, we’re left not just with our words, but with every last morsel of doubt, apprehension, longing, and hopelessness that in the end can make writing incredibly moving and gut busting.
What we don’t go in fear of enough is abstraction. Vagueness. We need to paint an accurate picture of a moment or place in sensory detail that allows anyone else to be impacted or fully involved, physically and emotionally. What’s more, an almost over-the-top obsession with sensory detail is what will help an early draft overcome the monkeys on our back. Fear, lack of confidence, lack of direction—these all vanish when we pay attention to the sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound of a moment.
Here’s an example from a recent student of mine, Mimm Patterson. This is her initial description of a place central to an essay about her family history:
I think I walked on Hawk Mountain for the first time after my friends Becky and Donna talked me into joining the local 4H club when I was in junior high. We climbed to the North Lookout, before they carved stairs from the Tuscarora sandstone that make it easier to find the quartz and shale outcrop. I remember looking out over the landscape, towards Bake Oven Knob and then down toward the River of Rocks, a geological formation pushed together by bullying glaciers. I felt free and lost. Free and lost. I was let loose by the air on my skin and the solid earth under my feet.
It’s not bad writing. The pace and sentence structure feel right, and we have specific names to help ground us in one moment. But it lacks real evocation of a place, and that lack of sensory detail is what will keep us writers from breaking through to the other side—the deeper subjects we know we’re pointing toward consciously or not.
Here is Mimm’s revision:
This mountain is all too beautiful. I am standing on the right side of a prominence filled with light and shadow and built of earth and boulders made from strong quartz, shale and Tuscarora sandstone. The sun cuts sharp edges between the flat bright surfaces and black molten folds of this ancient rubble. It is fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor. To my left the variegated grey slabs rise for another twenty-one feet and form a second peak which has built around it a corral of wood to protect distracted birders from straying too close to the edge. On a point that juts into the ether and one that no one would dare stand there’s a pole of stripped pine and perched on top of that pole is the stuffed, feathered Great Horned Owl. It is set there each year during fall migration and is so lifelike she takes new climbers by surprise. You can hear them as they approach on the final ascent. First comes the quiet gasp of shock and sometimes the whispered ‘Look! It’s an owl!’, the release of air with the realization they’ve been fooled and then a soft chuckle of delight. Occasionally, if the climbers are young, you’ll hear the added ‘It’s not real, stupid’ and then more laughs. You can almost feel the poke in the ribs.
Hot tamales! Now that’s writing! The author has taken the time to bring us to her physical place, which will soon open the door to the psychological and emotional place. Any one of the details can become a metaphor, a touchstone, to help guide the writing into more open and honest territory. Soon, Mimm will discuss the mountain as refuge and teacher as she confronts a troubled past with her mother and herself in a small town. It’s the details, the patience to describe, that allow writers to gain confidence and momentum. But here’s Mimm in her own words: “Developing the sensory details stirred something in me—woke something up in my heart. My story—the one I am still struggling to tell—gained new life and became more accessible to me. Focusing on the sensory details of a place and time in my past offered the clarity and courage I needed to dive deeper.”
Benjamin has a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, an M.F.A. from the Ohio State University, and a B.F.A. from the University of Evansville. His writing has appeared in over 50 publications, like Creative Nonfiction, Orion, and The Sun, as well as in eight anthologies. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Benjamin is the author of two chapbooks and a poetry collection, Afterimage (SFA Press), and writes a weekly garden column for Houzz.com while freelancing for other publications.