On a sunny spring day, I sat with seven homeschoolers on a stretch of grass for a creative writing session. The older kids started to fidget before we even started.
“What are we doing out here?”
“We’re going to see what’s around us.”
A fifth grader pointed with his pen. “I see sky, clouds, cars, building. Done.” The others laughed.
“We’re going to be quiet and listen, too,” I added.
“I hear birds. Done.” More chuckles.
“Before we write,” I began, “Let’s look at the sky. What color is it?”
Someone said blue.
“What kind of blue? There are so many blues. Is it dark blue like these navy pants? Or is it blue like turquoise? Or is it the kind of blue you want to swim in? Or the color of your mom’s eyes?”
They looked up. “Write down phrases that describe this particular blue at this particular moment of this particular day. Compare it to other things that are blue.”
They studied the sky, and one by one, each started writing.
“What else do you see—you mentioned clouds. What kind of clouds? Puffy white cumulus clouds or light and filmy cirrus clouds?”
Group Your Senses
We continued exploring multi-sensory details. They grouped their ideas by sense, so each stanza of the poem they were going to write began:
This simple “senses” poem isn’t just for kids. You could try sensory writing, too.
Sensory Writing Practice
Slow down and tune into the space around you, ideally outdoors.
Look, listen, inhale deeply.
What do you notice at this particular moment of this particular day? Write down keywords and adjectives.
Capture images and sounds.
What smells do you breathe in?
Compare those details to something else. You’ll be crafting metaphors with nouns and more seemingly unrelated nouns that end up enhancing meaning.
Touch different textures.
Taste something—well, taste what’s appropriate (don’t eat anything poisonous)!
As you capture the particulars, you’ll realize that this moment is one-of-a-kind, and you’re writing about it using all your senses, as those kids did.
Pull Your Senses Together
When you realize the poem is coming together, group the sensory details you’ve described to form those stanzas:
Rearrange as needed, of course.
Write an opening line if you like. Maybe two.
Write a closing line if you like. Maybe two. Maybe three.
Read it aloud.
Sensory Writing for Life
You’ve preserved in multi-sensory detail a moment of your wild and precious life.
And you’ve practiced a skill you can use in all your writing to bring your stories and scenes to life for your reader with this multi-sensory detail.
Years ago I attended a writing workshop and the leader referenced Flannery O’Connor, paraphrasing a section of “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose:
A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our having five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present. (Emphasis mine, 69)
The workshop leader held up an imaginary artist’s brush and said, “One, two, three…and you’re done!”
Include in your poetry and prose—fiction or nonfiction—at least three sensory details and your reader will be in the scene with you.
Read It Aloud and Applaud
Right there in the grass on that day with the homeschooled kids, they arranged their poems, scribbling into spiral notebooks balanced on bony knees.
When we brought them back inside, each child read their poem aloud for the other mom, who had stayed inside while we wrote. We applauded after each poem.
One of them read a simple series of images and metaphors. We applauded. He grinned a sheepish grin and then shook his head after making eye contact with his mom.
I looked over; she was wiping away tears. “That was beautiful,” she said, stopping to swallow and press the corners of her eyes to dam them up.
She smiled and looked at each child. “They are all so, so beautiful.”
You see the world—and your corner of the world—like no one else. The comparisons you make, the metaphors you form, flow from your own connections and history.
Bring your world to life.
One, two, three…and you’re done!
- A version of this story was first published at Tweetspeak Poetry; read it HERE.
- Read or listen to “Writers Should Say Yes to New Experiences”
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. (69)