Goal: Type a 1 1⁄2-2 page (total) paper that explores your sensory perception of places and objects. (CHECK YOUR UNDERSTANDING: “Total” means you will have approximately one-two paragraphs for each exercise.)
Exercise 1: Describe a place (for example, your room) solely in terms of one sense. “Mute” the other senses while you explore just the smells for instance, or the textures of the place.
Exercise 2: Describe an object by mixing two sense impressions (for example smells and sounds). You can use this list to help you think of your other senses besides vision. (All excerpts from McClanahan’s book)
Smell-This is the smell most closely related to memory. This sense is hard to write about because, as Diane Ackerman says in her book Natural History of the Senses, it is “the mute sense, the one without words” She says that there is a weak connection between the smell center and the language center of our brains: “We can describe a sight using visual adjectives-but when we try to describe a smell, it’s usually in terms of other things…usually we resort to describing how they make us feel.” (McClanahan pg. 65)
Taste-Close to smell. Moving beyond a straightforward naming (Chocolate Chocolate Chip, Buttermilk biscuits) a writer can describe a taste in terms of the tongue’s gustatory map: sweet, salty, sour, bitter. For a writer who uses strong descriptions of taste read Marcel Proust; he often borrows from the other senses to describe: the cakes are “squat” “plump” “shaped like” “the fluted valve of a scallop shell” and he uses his sense of touch to describe eating the cakes and drinking tea “the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touches my palate…a shudder ran through me.” (McClanahan pg. 72)
Touch-An intimate sense. This can be a way to engage your imagination through observing the texture of the object, for example, or how the materials have been manipulated. This is a good way for artists and designers to relate to the visual stimulus through their experience of making things.
Sound-The inner voice, real or imagined, or music is often heard in response to something. One sees a high-pitched, dry, silver metallic object suspended before one’s eyes. Or hears the way a subject might talk in a photograph. The sound of words themselves is often a way to enter into one’s response to a work. A fizzled photograph. An ornery, organized, orb of a head.
Synesthesia-The use of one sense to describe another “It smells like sparkling gases” “tastes like a mouthful of bees” “green is fresh/like a new pair of lungs” (McClanahan pg. 78)
SUPPLEMENTAL COMMENTARY/READING MATERIAL:
WHAT FOLLOWS ARE EXCERPTS from McClanahan’s book with examples of descriptive language. These are offered as inspiration.
WHAT IS DESCRIPTION?
“In the fields of science, linguistics, grammar and mathematics, description concerns itself with the study of things as they exist, with bringing forth the attributes of subjects rather than simply explaining or labeling them. In literature, description refers to the language used to bring these attributes to the reader’s mind. Description is an attempt to present as directly as possible the qualities of a person, place, object or event. When we describe, we make impressions, attempting through language to represent reality. Description is, in effect, word painting.” —From Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan.
Examples of sensory description:
“Both men were smoking; the air held it low because the kitchen was steamy from cooking and the storm windows sealed us in, the smoke blending with the milk smell of the room, that room soured every inch by milk slopped and strained, churned and set by, year after year, maybe seventy of them passed altogether.” —From During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, by John Chase.
“Hand-in-hand we climbed the dark stairs, knocked on the doors. I shivered, held Grandma tighter, remember still the smell which was curiously fragrant, a sweet soup of talcum powder, folded curtains, roses pressed in a book. Was that what years smelled like?” —From The Cookies, by Naomi Shihab Nye.
“Next day Madame brushed my hair like Momma does at home. There is real surrender in letting my head be tugged by a rattail comb in someone else’s hands. First she parts, scoring my skull like a map, separating strands into smooth threads. Little teeth nip hair by hair out of tangles and the preliminary comb is ritual before the hair brush. That begins with bristles skimming like sea urchins down the contours of my head. Madame lifts the brush quickly off my neck to make the hair fly, like a held music phrase; each strand slips back like a whispered note. With my eyes closed, I pretend I’m underwater, head bumping, and sand scratches my scalp, currents tug me like seaweed ropes; I shiver. Bristles quiver near my ear, tiny nylon nails.
‘No, I’m fine. Makes me shiver.’”— From The Eye of Madame X, by Gail Galloway Adams.
“My father’s right arm ended not in a hand but, at the elbow, in a bony swelling. Think of a pollard tree in silhouette. That was my father’s stump. Its skin was drawn tight across the bone and tucked frowning into the hole left by the missing lower joint. The indented scar was like those made in the ice by boys with stones-a small uneven puncture, wet with brackish puss.” —From The Gift of Stones, by Jim Crace.
“Flour swirled in a slant of light and lined the creases of the baker’s neck, salting his hair, He doused the work table with flour and kneaded the dough until it felt soft as an ear lobe, then cut pieces of the mass and balanced them on the enamel scale. He flattened the pieces with the palm of his hand to make thin disks, which he slipped into the oven. In the intense heat of the fires the loaves puffed up, hollow in the center. Once out of the ovens they collapsed as they cooled, and he wrapped the bread in towels or muslin to keep it soft enough to fold around an olive or fresh cheese or slice of cooked lamb.” —From Bread, by Jane Brox.
An example of even more detailed description that becomes abstract:
Alain Robbe-Grillet is a French writer born in 1922. His writing has been described as “a theory of pure surface.” Excerpt from his novel Jealousy:
“Now the shadow of the southwest column— at the corner of the veranda on the bedroom side— falls across the garden. The sun, still low in the eastern sky, rakes the valley from the side. The rows of banana trees, growing at an angle to the direction of the valley, are everywhere quite distinct in this light.
From the bottom to the upper edge of the highest sectors, on the hillside facing the one the house is built on, it is relatively easy to count the trees; particularly opposite the house, thanks to the recent plantings of the patches located in this area.
The valley has been cleared over the greater part of its width here: there remains, at present, nothing but a border of brush (some thirty yards across at the top of the plateau) which joins the valley by a knoll with neither crest nor rocky fall.
The line of separation between the uncultivated zone and the banana plantation is not entirely straight. It is a zigzag line, with alternately protruding and receding angles, each belonging to a different patch of different age, but of a generally identical orientation.”