When it comes to my memoir writing, I am confident I can write one piece of the writing pie well. I implore the power of details.
Natalie Goldberg’s, Writing Down the Bones says, “We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips . . .” She further explains that details are then free to continue. My world expands and I discover that which I ordinarily wouldn’t have. Writing details, specifically using the senses, forces me to live in the present moments.
A few years ago, I lead a memoir writing workshop for a handful of seniors at a local independent living community. I wanted to steer them away from the personal, autobiographical details that could make their writing otherwise ho-hum. In order to tell them how to do this, I needed to show them with a writing exercise that forced them to experience the present moments. I helped the residents to pull their chairs near the window so everyone could see outside. With pens in hand and notebooks on laps I asked, “What do you see? Please write your responses in your notebooks.” I followed up with another question. “What do you hear?” I continued until I had asked of all five of their senses. When everyone was finished, I asked for their answers. One wrote she saw a mailman’s truck parked. Another saw a few melted snow piles. When I asked for what they heard, smelled and felt, most, if not all, replied they didn’t hear anything, didn’t smell anything either and certainly didn’t feel anything. They looked at me confused. I explained. “The mailman’s truck. How is it parked? Close to the curb, crooked? Is it a dirty truck or shiny clean?” I moved on to hearing. (Okay, so this may have been a challenge because most of the residents have hearing aids, but just go with me on this) “Do you hear anything,” I asked? “I don’t hear anything. We can’t hear what’s going on outside. The windows are closed,” a resident said. I told them it’s not just about the details outside. It’s all that surrounds you. It’s about living in the present moments. “I hear the heating unit above our heads humming when the heat kicks on and a gush of hot air blasts through the pipes. I hear chatter and laughter behind us in the hall outside,” I said. I began to notice a few looks of clarity. “And smell. Do you smell anything?” I asked. “No, no. I don’t smell anything,” a few said in unison. I explained I did smell something, sweet, and grape. Delbert was chewing a purple Jelly Belly. Eventually my points were understood. A writer’s vision must be all encompassing, not limited to tunnel vision where one’s eye is naturally directed – straight ahead. Tuning into all that surrounds you completes a sensual picture.
I emphasized how a writer’s richness can be found in the details, using all senses. Telling words limits your reader to your physical world. Showing using sensual description enlarges that world. William Zinsser wrote in his book, On Writing Well, how memoir is a window into life. Opening yourself up as a writer to every detail using your senses helps your reader to see into your story through your window.
A reader could place herself (I hope!) next to me in this paragraph from my memoir,
My beloved part of my day remained at five o’clock in the evening when the pool and sun deck had cleared. The chlorinated water calmed to intermittent ripples and bloomed teal as the sun lowered. I smelled the sweetness of summer when the calm winds sneaked through the open fields to greet me as I spread-eagled on the lounge chair. My world was heavy with the scent of wild flowers and freshly cut grass with an added dried thorny-brush smell added. As the fragrance wafted over the pool it picked up hints of chlorine and then waked my concentration as it floated past. I looked up as if I was being tapped on the shoulder. The sun’s warmth was infused with strength. I smelled the breeze’s bouquet and heard the resonance calming quickly. My serenity lasted for two hours; I was living in the moment. I didn’t mind being alone. I didn’t feel that way. I could declare again, just as I did as that little girl posing for her picture to be taken, that life was truly good.
I revisited my questions with the residents and when their answers were once limited to a line or two; their notebooks later witnessed a newly discovered world they had tapped into just by evoking their five senses.