Writing

How the Senses Come Into Play for Readers and Writers

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A reader who believes in a story opens to it, mind and body. Novels have to work harder than films or television dramas to induce this openness; they can’t dismantle defenses with mood music and explosions. But they must induce openness, in order to get readers to climb aboard their carnival rides and stay until the end. The fiction writer’s first job is to enable readers to open to a story.

Many dimensions of stories convince readers to climb aboard and keep them there. But well-chosen details of the setting and characters in action – details that can be perceived by the senses – are particularly effective. As Flannery O’Connor writes in Mystery and Manners, “The nature of fiction is in large measure determined by the nature of our perceptive apparatus.” Sensory details can put this perceptive apparatus into a writer’s hands.

This is why one describes little Johnny’s panic when his cat is stuck high in a magnolia tree, and the fallen flowers that give off a sickly odor, and the cat keening and hesitating on its perch up there. This is why one lingers on the drinking of a long-awaited vanilla milkshake his mother gives him, cold and creamy: to awaken the senses.

A set of requests begins when a reader opens a book. “Surrender to me,” says the book; “Enable me to feel you,” says the reader. Readers enticed by sensory details can find it easier to entrust a book with their bodily responsiveness and to enter its fantasy.

How can writers tell what may enable readers to feel the story? The way I try to tell is by attending closely to how my own perceptive apparatus responds as I work. Am I feeling a character’s predicament? What data can increase that effect? Does my attention lag? What feels satisfactory as an end to each section? What mood or condition will engage me next, and next, and build an emotional arc? Sounds and rhythms have their influence. The use of language tightens.

Crafting “realness” in scenes and summaries takes time. O’Connor says, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.” (Fortunately, reading a novel is not nearly such an ordeal.)

So why do some writers bother? I think it’s at least in part because the sense-driven manuscript that results can be a powerful advertisement for the writer’s view of the cosmos. For in its grip, readers become vulnerable, returning to an extent to the infant state of receiving through the senses, of being open without filters. It’s a grave thing for a writer to wield this power over human physiology, to gain access to tender places, in service of an advertisement.

But readers offer this gift to writers in return for many others.

First, there is a catharsis to be had, something akin to vigorous bodily exercise, when a reader surrenders to a well-crafted story. Another gift – which makes the reader perhaps not so vulnerable to influence as a writer may hope or fear – is the reader’s role as co-creator. For the tale a writer supplies is but a sliver compared to what each reader fills in while imagining it.

In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood describes this interplay: “The printed text of a book is thus like a musical score, which is not itself music, but becomes music when played by musicians, or ‘interpreted’ by them, as we say. The act of reading a text is like playing music and listening to it at the same time …”

There is an ecstasy to be found in this. W. B. Yeats writes, “Art bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrinks from … all that is not a fountain jetting from entire hopes, memories, and sensations of the body.”

Such sensory openness is not all a novel can accomplish; as both reader and writer, I find farther motives necessary. But it is a useful, perhaps a necessary precondition for those other accomplishments.