Using the Senses to Tell the Truth
Our first job as writers is to create a convincing world on the page. Ours is a truth-telling enterprise whether we’re inventing or remembering. Whether we’re writing fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry, we rely on the concrete details to gain the trust of our readers. How can we ever hope for our work to tell the large truths if we don’t first tell the small ones?
Sensory details count for so much when we’re portraying places and the people who occupy them. What are the sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and tactile sensations of the places you’re creating or recalling in your work? You may find that you tend to favor one sense over the others. If so, challenge yourself to develop those other senses because something magical happens if you can offer a description that uses at least three distinct sensory details. The place and its people become vivid and persuasive. The concrete details carry a message of belief. They say, “You can trust me, dear reader, because here’s this world I’ve made for you, this world you can’t deny.”
The smell of wild onions on a chilly spring evening, the call of a whippoorwill, the wind out of the north. My parents and I walk across our pasture. My father calls for the lost calf we’ve been trying to find. One last hope because it’s twilight now, and we’re headed back to our farmhouse. My mother’s barn coat smells of fuel oil because she wears it when she fills our stoves. My father calls, “Sook, sook,” over and over before cursing under his breath. “Goddamn it,” he says. Sometimes he says that word to me. Then he takes off his belt or reaches for a yardstick and I feel the fire on my legs and backside, and I beg him to stop. I tell him I’ll be good. In the pasture, the only sounds now are our footsteps thudding on the hard ground. We vanish a little more with each step as twilight gives way to darkness. I think of the lost calf, and I feel an ache in my throat. I ball my hands into fists inside the pockets of my corduroy jacket. Although my parents have been dead for years, here they are again. Here they are in the darkness, and I’m with them. I have my mother and my father, and I’m moving through the dark with them. I keep my eyes on the square of light in the window at our farmhouse, the light that tells me we’re almost home.
I wasn’t thinking of that long-ago night when we went searching for the lost calf and had to give up and walk back to our house in the darkness when I began to offer this example of concrete details. The wild onions, the whippoorwill, the north wind took me there. I certainly didn’t mean to write about my father’s anger, but once I heard him say, “Goddamn it,” there it was. Sensory details not only create a convincing world, they also invite us to explore what we might not otherwise be able to face. The details provide an entry into what we’ve come to the page to say. We don’t know that’s where we’re going when we start out—after all, we’re only describing—but if we’re paying attention, those concrete details evoke emotions and suddenly we, too, are immersed in the world of our creation. We and our readers are on a journey together, a journey upon which the details will lead us to the truth.
Wonderful. Thanks again.
I was just speaking with someone about what sensor detail does to enrich a story. Yet, as you have so plainly shown, sensory details lead to memories long buried in our brains and bodies. It is powerful to allow those memories to come alive in the writing such detail. Thank you, Lee.
Those details become our indirect entryways into material we might not otherwise approach.
Did you ever find the calf?
Joy, I tend to remember that it came wandering back into the pasture the next day.