Evoking the Senses: A Writing Exercise

One of the exercises I love to do in some of my classes involves description. I break the class into small groups of three and assign each group a word of a place. They have to then use all their senses to describe the place without giving away their location. Then they present it and the class gets to guess the location. We all have fun with it, as the students realize just how specific and descriptive I want them to get.

For example: It smells good. Well, what is good? What does good smell like? Is it the scent of gardenias on a summer’s afternoon? Is it the thick and overpowering smell of steak being cooked on the barbecue? Is it the smell of rain right before the first drops fall?

There’s no denying that good writing uses all the senses, and great writing does so in a manner that is flawless, leaving the reader with beautiful, vivid details and, to paraphrase one of my students, completely transports us into the story. And there’s also no denying that our senses are integrally tied to our memories. How many times have we smelled a particular scent and been hurled into a memory head first? Or sometimes we taste something and we’ll immediately recall a scene from long ago that had been tucked away behind more pertinent memories.

At the FIU Writer’s Conference two years ago, Dan Wakefield, who was leading a workshop on creative nonfiction, gave us a freewriting exercise that involved writing the scenes that came to mind with a few key words. For smell, he gave us: Smell of hamburgers cooking on the grill, perfume, sauerkraut, Vicks vapor rub, new car. I chose to write about the smell of new car:

My mother had always complained about the ol’ junkers in our driveway: a large, army green automatic one, el carro verde and a smaller, two-door stick shift one, el carro blanco. My parents always referred to their old cars by their colors. But my mother wanted a new car. She was tired of the old ones breaking down, and she refused to take the expressway for precisely that fear. For that Christmas in ’89, my father finally conceded to buying a car, and he bought her el Mazdita, a metallic blue, 2-door hatchback. They went from using shades of color to describe the car, and instead focused now on the brand. It was a step up. I loved the new car. It didn’t smell like the lingering, nose-tickling scent of my father’s Winston cigarettes, like the carro blanco did. It didn’t smell damp, like el carro verde did, because water had leaked in through its windows countless times. It smelled new, if newness had a scent. The hard plastic, musty smell of the new car was overpowering, and it reminded me of richness. Even at nine-almost-ten, I could tell the new car smell was empowering to my mother, who although quiet, beamed. She didn’t get many new things; this was a treat. And it was hers. I would simply ride in the back, with my eyes either closed or glued to a Babysitter’s Club book, inhaling the clean, plastic air that was free from pollutants. My mother made it a rule that my father could not smoke in her car. He had the other two junk cars to do that in.

That same car became mine, ten years later, as I was a student at FIU and had left home. My mother had upgraded to a Toyota Corolla; my father didn’t drive. He was sick and stayed home, and although he didn’t know it yet, would have his left leg amputated in a few years. The Mazda was my form of transportation for about a year. The new car smell was gone; instead, it had the scent of books, a Tweety air freshener that was to resemble fruits, and the shampoo of the day.

So here’s a writing prompt, if you need one: write the memories that come to mind with any one of the following:

– The smell of freshly brewed coffee, hamburgers cooking on the grill, perfume, freshly cut grass, Vicks vapor rub, or new car.

– The taste of chocolate covered strawberries, peanut butter, hot chocolate, meatloaf, eggs

– The sound of a washing machine, a car’s engine, a train whistle, chalk on chalkboard

Happy writing!

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