Tag Archives: biography

Write for Your Life Part 6: The Senses

Stories are better with sensory description. Photo by Blaise van Hecke

Write for your life. Have you been doing it? You’ll have nothing to work with if you don’t sit down and put words on a page, no matter what you feel about your writing ability or how you are putting the story together.

I’ve been writing about different aspects of life writing over the previous five blogs, so this is the last of this series. At the end of the day there are no ‘rules’ about how to write or how to write your memoir or biography but I know that there will be something from these blogs that will help you push forward and create something that others want to read. There’s nothing more ‘eye-glazing’ than a biography full of dates and events but no emotion or actual story.

You might have the bones of your story. You may even have identified some themes and feel that the story is reading well. But is it engaging? Does your reader feel like they are right there with you in 1975 when you skinned your knee at Uncle Tom’s funeral?

By uses the senses, you can infuse life (pun intended) into your story. There are the obvious senses like sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell and there are the subtler ones like intuition, feelings of pain and balance. The latter senses are more about how we react to the physical world around us.

The reason that the senses are important is that we react to the world in different ways through them. For instance, some people learn better through auditory stimulus, others need to see things and visualise them. These sensory stimuli create a different experience for each individual. By being more specific with your description using the senses, you will be able to really connect with your reader on a more emotional level. This is especially useful if writing from a child’s point of view who will have less verbal capacity to relay what they feel.

Writing exercise
Think about an event in your childhood that is strong in your memory. It could be your first day at school, the day a pet or relative died or when a sibling was brought home from the hospital. For this exercise, I want you to write from the point of view of your age. This means that your vocabulary might be limited as will be your understanding of the world around you. If you were five, write as a five-year-old would speak. Use the senses. What are the smells or sounds around you or can you feel something (physically or intuitively) that you don’t understand? Write about this for 10 minutes and then stop. Don’t overthink this and write as freely as possible.

When you read the piece, have you managed to infuse very specific sensory details into it? If not, go over it and see where you might be able to put in more. Often, it’s in the rewriting that you can see where this will add layers to your story.

Once you’ve tried this exercise, go over your own story and see if there are opportunities to infuse more life into it through sensory description. You’ll find that it becomes more engaging.

If you want to extend yourself further in your writing practice, think about attending one of our many workshops. My next Life Writing workshop is in June.

Blaise van Hecke, the book chick

Write for Your Life Part 4: Themes

What is your life theme? Photo by Blaise van Hecke

Have you been writing? We are now eight weeks into our life writing, so you should have a good handle on the overall story. So far, we have looked at the structure and ways to get the story out. It’s important to do this before worrying too much about the quality of your writing because you can’t work with nothing. Having that first draft, no matter how terrible you think it is, gives you the foundation to build on. I promise you the first draft is NEVER good. There will be parts of it that are good and parts that are terrible.

Once you feel that you have something that resembles a first draft, leave it for a little while (at least a week) and then look back over it. What stands out for you? Does the story feel preachy, sad, angry? Are there any common threads becoming apparent? These common threads are what will make your story resonate with your reader. If the story is just a series of events with no real thread, it may be boring to the reader.

These common threads are what hold the story together and become your theme. For instance, if you have a chronic illness that you have overcome, the theme of your overall story may be resilience. It’s not something that needs to be spelled out or explained to the reader but something that they take from the story.

There may be more than one theme. That’s okay but you don’t want dozens of them and you don’t want mixed messages. If your theme is about saving time, you don’t want your story to waffle on. It should be succinct and time-saving.

Once you have identified your theme(s), you need to go over your story to make sure there are no mixed messages and flesh out areas where you can strengthen the message (be careful to not be too dogmatic or preachy about this). In cases where you have mixed messages, this is the time to cut text.

If you are having trouble pinpointing what your theme is, you could ask someone else to read it. We get very close to our work so it’s sometimes hard to see it subjectively. Other readers will see it from a different point of view, or they might say, ‘I really like this part about how you worked through XX’. This will give you something to work with that resonates with someone.

Your homework now is to determine your theme or a theme that you’d like to really build on. Then go over the document and see where it can be strengthened.

Blaise the book chick