Exploring the Senses – Touch

Touching Ostrich Feathers in a Brown Paper Bag

Touching Ostrich Feathers in a Brown Paper Bag (make sure you can’t see what you’re touching to do the exercise we did)

Touch is a sense most of us take for granted – until we’re lying on satin sheets, or picking glass and gravel out of a knee – but  touch is sensed through the skin which is the largest organ of our human bodies. The sense of touch is based on detection of mechanical energy, or pressure against the skin. Touch, like taste, can include sensing temperature and pain; these receptors also exist in the skin and can be perceived simultaneously. In our writing, texture can bring dimension to an object and a scene. I hope through this exercise you will find that touch, like the other senses, can also bring up memories and vivid images. Let your characters touch the textures that fascinate you. How do they feel? How do they react?

Exercise – Each member of writing group brought a mystery object in a paper bag. We each reached into each bag, exploring with only our fingers and wrote down everything that came to mind.

My responses:

  1. Wet. A large alien eyeball. Birds dropping pits on the deck. A warm summer day enjoying the ability to pick my lunch from the garden. Sticky hands and face from popsicles. Running after the ice cream man. Red white and blue rocket pops. Item: peeled plum.
  2. I was never good at ice skating. My weak ankles would wobble from side to side. I enjoyed floor hockey. The side texture (of the object) made me think of tines. I remember playing air hockey at the skating rink. I really liked the feel of the cool air coming up from the table. Item: a hockey puck.
  3. Soft edges on a crusty spine. I remember going to the peacock farm with my mom when I was little, so she could pick up some long colorful plumes for her huge ceramic vase in the living room. It reminds me of the hundreds of metal loops I clamped feathers into after carefully bending each feather with pliers for the huge shoulder harnesses to be worn at the Mardi Gras balls. Item: ostrich feather.

Unlike taste, touch was again quick to conjure vivid images and memories. I found it easy to identify what was in the bags without looking and had stories to tell triggered by the objects. My response to the peeled plum could read as a little poem to summer present and past (Maybe minus the alien eyeball. Guess it depends if I meet any aliens and get to touch their eyeballs this summer).

I look forward to reading your experiences with this exercise. Remember, your skin is your largest sensory organ with areas of different levels of sensitivity. Our hands and fingers may be the most sensitive and dexterous, but rolling around in the grass, or going for a swim could be a great place to start exploring your sense of touch.

Exploring the Senses – Taste

Tasting sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory

Tasting sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory

Smell and taste are frequently stimulated together. The smell of food, for instance, greatly enhances its flavor. However, taste is a distinct sense from smell and should not be overlooked when describing your characters’ sensory perceptions. There are five well recognized types of taste receptors. These sensations are categorized as sweet, bitter, salty, sour and savory (often referred to with the Japanese word Umami). While exploring taste, I recommend finding ways to experience all five even though some of the taste sensations are not completely pleasant.

Exercise One: Gather things to taste that will activate all of the areas of your tongue. Also try some different textures. I tried soy sauce (Savory/Umami), lemon juice (sour), Agave nectar (sweet), Tonic water (bitter), pita chips (salty and crunchy) and plain Greek yoghurt for a smooth texture. Spend time moving each taste around your mouth and write down everything that comes to mind.

My example (Remember these are just notes. Forgive the incomplete sentences.):

Lemon Juice – More of a restrictive feeling on the tongue than a flavor, first on the right side then strongly at the back of the tongue. It stays in my throat and then I can feel it at the back of my sinuses.

Liquid Aminos (like soy sauce) – I feel it in the center top of my tongue. It is salty, but not from salt. It tastes brown like bear fur or the soft bark of a rotting tree.

Pita chips – do not taste as salty as the Liquid Aminos. The crunch is satisfying, makes me feel contented. My teeth feel sturdy and powerful. The bread flavor lingers as the crumbs liquefy and my tongue removes the leftovers from the bowls of my molars.

Tonic Water – Leaves a sour aftertaste at the top back of my mouth. All it is is sour aftertaste. It grabs the front of my tongue, but the bubbles carry it quickly to the top of my mouth where it lingers.

Agave Nectar – has a bit of a thick brown Molasses flavor though it is supposed to be the light neutral flavor. I don’t like it. I stick out my tongue and say “Eh.”

Greek yoghurt – It is cool on the tip and top of my tongue. Sour in aftertaste. A little vanilla or sweet at first. I feel the tang right at the top center of my mouth. I enjoy moving the thick silky texture around my mouth which I find odd because I hate the texture of pudding and it is very similar.

I was surprised that my notes were mostly physical descriptions of the feelings in my mouth. I did come up with a little bit of imagery that may be useful in my writing. I think I’ll try this exercise again sometime in the future with fruits and vegetables and also with a meal.

physical sensations on the tongue

physical sensations on the tongue

Exercise Two: With your new insights and sensory awareness from exercise one, take your main character out to dinner. What is his or her favorite food or restaurant? Why? What foods, smells and textures does he or she hate? Why? Once you get to your table start taking notes. How does your character make menu choices? Did s/he know what to get before arrival, or are menu decisions difficult? When the food arrives try to perceive everything about the meal as your character. Remember that the smell, texture and taste are all part of the taste sensation. Take notes of everything that comes to mind. If you invite people to join you and your protagonist on your taste adventure, make sure to clue them in to what you’re doing. You wouldn’t want them to think you were being rude to them, taking notes about them, or just plain crazy.

Exploring the Senses – Olfaction: The Sense of Smell

The sense of smell triggers emotional memories

The sense of smell triggers emotional memories

The sense of smell, more than any of the other senses, can trigger strong emotional memories. The olfactory system is physically wired for it. Unlike the other sensory pathways, the olfactory bulb has a direct connection to the amygdala (emotion) and hippocampus (memory consolidation). When you want to trigger your fictional character’s memory, you may want to figure out why s/he likes, or dislikes certain smells.

Preparing to explore the sense of smell was an exercise in itself. In the search for smells to trigger memories, I went scavenging at my childhood home. I started in the kitchen, looked around my old room, but hit serious pay dirt in my sister’s and my bathroom. I found small bottles of perfume I had received as gifts, lotion, an empty bottle of shampoo that still had a strong smell, and other forgotten stinky treasures. This adventure to my childhood home on the hunt for scents inspired a piece of writing before even doing the exercise.

Smells Like Home

She looked around the cold, empty kitchen. She wanted to make it feel like home again; warm and inviting as if they were all together staring at the TV in a tired, after school daze. She chose the French vanilla coffee from the ten different bags, in variable stages of use, in the freezer and started the pot. Her mother didn’t drink coffee and her dad drank instant. Did he drink instant because making coffee was woman’s work, or did he never bother to figure out the coffee pot? She didn’t know the answer. The only time there was coffee in the pot was for special occasions. Though her coffee was dripping in a regular plastic coffee pot, the sound of the coffee brewing reminded her of the tall silver percolator her mother set on the counter for every social gathering. She smelled the familiar earthy musk mixed with sweet and nutty aromas and she imagined everyone squeezing into the kitchen to help prepare the huge family meal. She thought of the Christmas get together with the lively white elephant gift exchange and smiled.

She went to the refrigerator and pulled out the huge block of orange medium cheddar which her mother always kept in the clear center drawer. The bread was on top of the fridge, though not in the stack of bowls like it used to be. They didn’t have the wonderful, hazelnut bread for her today, so wheat would have to do. She buttered the bread and started to slice the cheese. Remembering her mission to explore the smells of her youth, she held the slice up to her nose. Instantly, she pictured the cat that had been so crazy about cheese you could get him to walk on his hind legs and turn in a circle if you held cheese over him. He would be in the kitchen meowing loudly before you could even get the cheese out of the plastic wrap. He was the only one of Tatiana’s kittens they kept. What was his name? The smell of cheese didn’t bring that back. What a strange thing to forget.

Exercise: Gather a large selection of smelly objects that may trigger memories (I tried a sampling of gum and candy from my childhood along with the things I found in my childhood home). Don’t just look for good smells try some bad ones as well (I tried Witch Hazel, Noxema, and stinky perfume. Be creative. Try everything you can think of). In a group, smell the different objects and write down everything that comes to mind. Pick one smell that affected you the most and write about it for 5 minutes.

My example:

I had heard Ivory soap was invented to float, so I picked up a bar to clean myself in the lake while my septic was backed up—again. This was the second time in three years and when it happened the first time, I’d been without water for three months. At least this time it was warm. I got up before light and ripped open the plastic coated paper wrapper. The strong smell of the freshly opened bar of soap reminded me of the upstairs bathroom in my grandfather’s house. Specifically sitting and reading the wallpaper that looked like pages from a catalog from the old west. I remember the brown drawings of high button boots and a wood stove with prices a child collecting her pennies could afford. I don’t remember using Ivory soap during my annual week long summer visits. The soaps in the dish were small and shaped like flowers, but this was the smell of that bathroom. I decided I didn’t want to smell like grandpa’s bathroom. I didn’t care if the soap sank to the bottom of the lake. I hunted around the cupboard beneath the sink and found some old body wash. It was probably more environmentally friendly anyway.

I hope you try this exercise and enjoy exploring sensory description. I’d love to hear from you. Please leave comments and suggestions. Thank you.