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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

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Writing Starts with Questions?

Most writing starts with a question or a what if scenario.

What if we allow same-sex marriage?

What if you had three months to live?

What if you found out you had magical powers when you thought you were small, powerless and unwanted?

What would you do if you found out your partner was cheating on you?

As a writer, it’s your job to try to answer these questions. It’s through the writing that you will nut out the answers or solutions to a problem that your reader might have or the character in the story might have. You may not have all the answers but you can offer the reader some arguments, ideas or solutions that help them come to their own conclusion.

Readers are looking for something all the time. It might be that they feel lost or indecisive and these solutions can be presented in many ways through story. It doesn’t matter whether that story is fact or fiction because it’s the truth in the story that will make itself known. Even a simple love story has to be anchored in reality.

Truth? you say.

Yes, even fiction carries truth. In fact, without it the reader won’t connect with the story and will dismiss it very quickly.

Quite often the reader will already know the answer to their question but it’s from reading it in someone else’s words that helps to validate their own beliefs and ideas and cements a solution for them.

Here’s an example: We have been told through the ages that the ‘little guy’ can defeat the all powerful, that size doesn’t matter. These stories are played out in stories such as The Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter or countless biographies. The reader is looking for examples of how they might survive despite feeling like they have no choices, no power in their life.

Think about this when you’re writing. What is the truth that you are giving the reader? You have a lifetime of lived experience to share with your reader. They have questions, wants, and needs that they are looking for answers to.


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