Recently, I had the pleasure of reading L. Marie’s wonderful manuscript. There was much to love in her book – medieval setting, plucky heroine, original obstacles, potential love interest and fantastic metaphors. One aspect of L. Marie’s writing that struck me was her facility with all of the senses. Back in March, I attended the annual Novel Writing Workshop at Vermont College. One of the speakers, Julie Berry, opened her talk by asking how many people, when they close their eyes to go to sleep, see images behind their closed eyelids. I was surprised by the question because I had always assumed that to be a commonplace occurrence. When I close my eyes, I’m never sure what I’ll see. Sometime faces looking large or maybe landscapes I’ve never seen in real life. Sometimes just shapes merging one into another, a kaleidoscope behind the curtain of my eyelids. Berry’s talk was on how to view our writing differently. Through the talk, she urged the writers in the room to be aware of our strengths (mine, apparently is being very visual) but to also mind the gaps.
In my writing, I tend to go for the visual image. After all, reading is a visual exercise, right? Well, not necessarily. I mean, of course we process what we read visually, but as we read, we are also accessing many other parts of our brains. When L. Marie uses smell or hearing, two senses that I often neglect, her setting came alive for me in a way it couldn’t have had she relied on the visual alone. In an effort to “mind the gap,” I decided to get in touch with my less used senses. I went for a run and left my iPod behind. (gasp!) I am, well, let’s say passionate about music and there’s nothing I love more than a good playlist as the soundtrack to my run. But on this day, a gorgeous clear day, I left it behind, determined to hear everything.
As I made my way out of my tightly packed suburban neighborhood toward a trail, the first thing I noticed was that there is no such thing as silence. Cars whooshed down the road. Wind roared passed my ears. Birds sang in their many different languages. My shoes were a rhythmic thwat against the pavement and then a crunch as I hit the trail. A hammer pounded. A lawnmower whined. Children giggled. And there was the wind – thwacking through bamboo and rustling through oaks.
I considered the places in my novel where I’d used silence as a beat because I needed the characters to process something or I needed to build the emotional moment. And I realized that using silence was the easy way. Even in a quiet kitchen, there is the low whir of a refrigerator, maybe the drip of a sink, outside sounds drifting in through an open window. By allowing my character to hear those sounds or, even better, sounds that reflect her mood, I can deepen the moment for my reader.
Armed with a new soundtrack, I considered how I experienced the sounds, comparing them to sounds in my memory. Going further, I thought about how a character would hear the same sounds. Depending on who she is and in what time period she exists, how would she hear the wind through the tall oaks? Like the rustling of a lady’s rich brocade gown? Like a cheerleader’s pom-poms? Or would it be her mother’s voice, whispering her name from the deathbed?
I plan to be more aware of all the senses in my writing and of “minding the gap,” as Julie Berry says, so that I don’t miss the use of half my brain! I confess, though, that after that revelatory run, I returned to my iPod because there’s really nothing like Arcade Fire singing “Wake Up” as I’m working my way up that first hill of the day.