Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sensory Details & Emotional Memory

(Of his wife on her deathbed).  “I found myself, without being able to help it, in a study of my beloved wife’s face, systematically noting the colors.” – Edouard Manet
Remember those five senses?  Sight, Hearing, Touch, Smell & Taste

Memory resides in specific sensory details, sometimes referred to as emotional memory:  what the nerves and skin remember as well as how it appeared. In what particular way was Mama beautiful?  What did that angry neighborhood bull dog sound like? If we can capture and name the particular smell of the wax polish in that long-ago house, then other memories seem to follow.

For example, “Russell Baker says he remembers very well the day of his father’s death.  Although he was only five at the time, Baker could tap into vivid details that have stayed with him. “I can still hear people talking that day.  I know what the air smelled like.  I know what people’s faces looked like.  How they were dressed. What they were eating.

“If you find yourself having trouble getting into a story you want to tell, it is always a good idea to get up very close and start using your senses.  You may have a good idea of the whole story in your mind, but your vision of the whole may, in fact, be a hindrance to finding the way in.  Describing some of the details, using your ears and eyes, calling up a smell that belongs to a story, or reaching an imaginary hand back through time to touch a piece of furniture, or the texture of a dress, or someone’s skin – these acts of memory will serve you well.  They can and should be exercised over and over, not only to get you going, but also to push your story deeper, pull your reader closer, and lift the heart of the story out of obscurity into a sensory world that you and your readers can inhabit together.” –Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington, pages 116 and 117.

Exercises --
Change the following so that the reader can capture the essence.  Use the senses.

The strawberries were overly ripe.

The horn blared loudly.

The afternoon was warm.

Mother and Dad loved each other.  (You can use touch, taste, sight.)

The reader should to some degree get to know the characters through the sensory details that you provide.

Catherine Alexander


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