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  • Jennifer Ann Richter

My Sensory Experiment


I describe things for a living. As a by-product, my personal writing just oozes with sensory language and detail, right? Not exactly. At work I have to be succinct and economical, since creating TV descriptions for the blind often involves shoehorning stuff between lines of dialogue. In a way, that suits me just fine. Over-the-top, flowery prose isn’t really my style anyway.


But I’d like to change that. At least somewhat.


Recently I stumbled upon some really good descriptive and sensory-filled writing that left me wondering if my prose is perhaps a little *gulp* flat. After coming to terms with that painful realization, I decided to develop a plan of action. And since I have this thing about making lists and checking off boxes, I figured I’d do just that.


Checkbox #1: Get out and engage.


I knew that sitting at home and looking at life through a flat-screen TV wasn’t gonna cut it. There’s no smell-o-vision yet (although I do remember hearing rumblings about that as a kid), and you can’t reach out and touch that oak tree no matter how close the camera zooms in. If I wanted to increase my sensory vocabulary, I’d have to get out there and engage my senses.


Although my Germany trip is already two months behind me, I still recall the feeling I had running my fingers along stone walls built in the Middle Ages. I remember the rich, fluid song of Amsels (blackbirds) and the smell of coffee mingled with those German pastries I’ve been yearning for each and every morning since I’ve been back. It’s impressions like those that I need to build up in my mental library, ready to whip out at any time to enrich a future story.



Breakfast at my favorite German cafe.

Of course, there are things one can do at home, like paying attention to how it sounds when you wash your hands. I literally did that while drafting this blog and came up with “splash-gurgle-trickle-splash-gulp...” It may need some refinement, but you get the point.


Checkbox #2: Reflect.


On the old Bob Newhart Show (the one where he plays a psychologist in Chicago), Carol the receptionist dated a guy who considered himself a writer. He would carry a pen and pad with him everywhere he went in order to jot down things that inspired him (which he would later turn into awful poems).


Now, I’m usually not one to stop and chronicle my every little life experience. I’m not even much into photos. But there is something to be said for living consciously.


Even if I don’t record my observations right away, I should probably think more about what I’m seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling as I go about my daily life. I can always take time later to jot down those insights and perceptions that have lingered, the ones I just can’t get out of my head (like those German pastries).



Checkbox #3: Hone the senses.


Last week I came across a bayberry tree. How did I know it was a bayberry tree? It was on a nature trail that had signs identifying many of the trees and plants. The sign described the leaves as “fragrant when crushed,” so of course I had to pluck one when no one was looking. I crushed it, smelled it, and vaguely remembered chewing or sniffing a twig of some other tree a few years ago—either a birch or sweet gum. I was curious about how the two scents compared, so I made it a point to investigate that one day. Maybe I’ll do a blind sniff test and try to find the most precise words possible to describe the differences. Haven’t done it yet, but it’s on my list.



Checkbox #4: Write more poetry.


On a whim, I signed up for a four-week online poetry retreat that involved writing a poem a day, Monday through Friday, based on a short lesson, prompt, and examples. I initially regretted that impulse buy, because by the time the retreat started I’d been stressing out over some changes at my job and some issues related to my novel (which, by the way, is on its umpteenth revision) . But I’m so glad I didn’t bail out. Poetry is a great way to push the boundaries of descriptive language. Don’t want to brag, but I was amazed at what I was able to come up with on some days. That, along with some positive comments from fellow participants, gave me a much-needed boost of confidence in my journey to write more descriptively.


Anyway, that’s my initial plan of attack. I’m going to keep on finding ways to improve in this area, but honestly, I’ve come to realize that it’s often just a matter of—wait for it—stopping and smelling the roses.

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