7 Min read
Sense writing: traditional five plus two more
2 Reading recs: historical novel and story
1 Writing guide
Improve writing immediately
Toolbox, ages 9 to 99
Writing Through the Seven Senses
When I’m working on an aspect of my writing, I pay attention for it in my reading. I’ve been doing a daily ten-minute writing exercise which focuses on seven senses .* The following passages highlight skillful use and particularly eerie–ok let’s call it more than troubling–scenes.
This is the very kind of writing that sticks out for me, that lingers on long after the reading is done.
Consider the traditional five senses processed through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. These sense organs allow us to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Your head, the human head, is extraordinary. The brain processes the five senses, how we experience the world.
Imagine the (1) feel of a rose petal against the cheek, its (2) sweet fragrance, the (3) pale pink hue, the (4) silky taste of it, the (5) silence when you release it in the wind.
Two extra senses. What then are the two extra senses? Music professor Pat Pattison* describes them as organic and kinesthetic.
The organic is the awarness of inner bodily functions, something which athletes are most ‘keenly focused on’ such as breathing, pulse, muscle tension. Or, as a writer, I’ve been sitting too long and need to get up and stretch my legs, my back, fold my arms across my chest.
The kinesthetic is roughly your sense of relation to the world around you. If you’re drunk, the world around you blurs. Dancers and divers develop it most fully. Pattison describes the train you’re on as standing still and the one next to it moves, and how your kinestetic sense goes crazy.
HORSE by Geraldine Brooks
The character Jess describes what is officially known as the Environmental Suite where she works at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center. She tells Theo that workers “just call it the bug room.” When they step inside, they’re “hit by an unlovely stench.“
“Beetle frass–poo, I think, is the less technical term–and decomposing flesh. These guys–dermestids–are totally unwelcome anywhere else on this property. In here, we want them to eat things, where as that’s considered suboptimal in museum storage areas.”
“That seems a bit–primitive?” Theo said.
Jess shrugged. “Dermestids can do the delicate work of cleaning bones with less damange than any other method we’ve been able to come up with. Efficient too. They clean about three thousand specimens a year for us–anything from hummingbirds to an elephant that died at the National Zoo. They can clean a mouse in a day; a dolphin might take two or three weeks. Let me get them something they like.”
She crossed over to the cold store and scanned the desiccating specimens. The Arctic wolf carcass looked ready, so she picked up the tray and carried it back to the bug room. “Watch this,” she said, as she set the tray down. Within seconds, the beetles found the carcass and were all over it.
“Rugby team at a buffet table,” Theo said. The munching of so many bugs was audible–a soft snap-and-crackle sound.Horse by author and Pulitzer prize winner Geraldine Brooks, page 135.
Senses abound to bring this morbid, flesh-eating bug room alive. The visuals of decomposing flesh and the wolf carcass, the stench of beetle frass, the cold tray she sets down and the munch of a gazillion beetles, the soft snap-and-crackle sound. As a reader, the senses are overwhelmed, and I find myself horrified and fascinated in turn, wrinkling my nose and cringing in an odd sort of delight to learn such a bug room exist. It does. It is real as the author explains in a speech.
Theo’s metaphor about the rugby team gives urgency to the life-force of the lowly but devastating dermestid. Scientific names and precise word choice provide context of a lab: environmental, suboptimal, frass, desiccating (or drying out). Such writing has the reader present in the room, eyeing the Arctic wolf flesh, the drying leg served up on a cold tray and the assault of beetles, the squirmming mass of bugs all over it.
What of the extra two senses? Not explicitly written, as in the next passage, this makes my skin crawl, a bodily reaction to the text, as I wipe at my nose, squint and take myself out of that room, though of course I’m nowhere close to that room. My brain is sensing what I am reading, as if it is real.
“TAKE ME, I AM FREE” by Joyce Carol Oates
Beware! This is a wicked passage. Of suburbia, the harrowing, ugly-to-the-bone that taps into a mother’s sins. What makes the tale ghastly is its believability, diving into one’s lesser nature. The lazy. The neglect. The disdain. The selfish. In the extreme.
In this four-page story, Oates opens with a narrative line: The mistake must have been, the child woke too soon from her afternoon nap.
The mother is on the phone and the next paragraph closes with a statement the child hears. “No, it is not postpartum bullshit. It isn’t physical at all. It isn’t mental. It isn’t genetic, and it isn’t me. It’s her.”
The reader is eight lines into the story. Eight lines. Here is a passage on the second page.
“I didn’t sign up for this. I didn’t understand what was involved–‘motherhood.’ Before I knew what was happening she got inside me and kept growing and growing and now she’s everywhere–all the time. Always I’m obliged to think of her–sucking all the oxygen out of my lungs.”Zero-Sum Stories (2023) by Joyce Carol Oates, excerpt from page 110., Take Me, I Am Free
The italics are used by Oates in the text as well. She chooses each word carefully.
The order and the sentences are distilled to the absolute essence, making every line count. She builds tension, with tidbits, pulls the reader into this dark place.
In a flurry of activity, focused as a tornado, the mother gathers the child together with the week’s trash to set out on the sidewalk in front of the buffed-brick row house on Stuyvesant Street.Ibid. p. 110, third paragraph
She’s next to a sign with handwritten words on it. Have you guessed what they are? TAKE ME, I AM FREE. This is the second page and I’ll leave it to you to learn the rest.
What of the extra two senses?
Not physical, not mental, not genetic. The postpartum bullshit. This is the organic sense, the mother’s physicality and her sense of separateness from the child, the problem, the ugly realities are all about the child.
The mother describes the growth inside her, the pregnancy and the hell implied in the words, always I’m obliged to think of her, the complete extinction of self and the words sucking all the oxygen out of my lungs. The child took over her body, the organic sense.
The kinestetic sense is that the girl has consumed the mother’s life and world, so much so that the child is everywhere, all the time.
The organic and kinestetic senses breathe a potency into the writing, a connection to the reader which touches the nerve. The reader must know more. What happens next?
When I finished this story I continued thinking about it. A mother stabbed her five children* this spring. Mothers killing their children is nothing new, but what is, is how Oates writes about it in this collection.
Give it a go. Improve writing immediately and write through the seven senses.
*Write through the prism of the seven (7) senses, the traditional five (5) of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. And use two more, according to Pat Pattison’s Object Writing in his book, Writing Song Lyrics: organic and kinesthetic. Organic relates to the body and kinesthetic is about your relationship to the world around you. I am loving Pattison’s book and in spite of my distaste for the growing size of my book collection, ordered my own copy, a used but very good copy.
*Horse by Geraldine Brooks is a recent historical novel about the famous horse, Lexington, the horse-racing industry, slavery and racism, science and art, with dual narratives in time, and characters as headings for each chapter.
*Zero-sum Stories by Joyce Carol Oates is a short story collection that provokes the reader, with more than a peek into the dark side.
Recent headlines of mothers killing their children.
*Texas mother stabbed her own children, killing three and wounding two, authorities say, USA Today, March 6, 2023.
*Bullitt County mother charged with murder of 2 sons says it was an accident, WKYT.com, November 11, 2023.