Learning to see

Cavern

Ursula Le Guin once told a class of aspiring writers, “We are the raw nerve of the universe. Our job is to go out and feel things for people, then to come back and tell them how it feels to be alive. Because they are numb. Because we have forgotten. We have forgotten our rituals. Our tribal practices. There is no more tribe. We don’t know how to tell our elders our dreams around the morning fire. There is no morning fire. We can’t receive insight from the mothers.”

That is the writer’s goal, to reawaken others to what it means to be human in an age that’s severed us from nature, memory, and connections. If we’re to tell others how it feels to be alive, we must first feel it ourselves. No doubt writers, like other artists, pursue their craft because they naturally notice details and patterns their friends often miss, and want to express their insights to others. But just as we constantly improve our craft, we must also hone our senses.

I’ve found that physical exercise, especially martial arts, is an effective way to sharpen the senses and unify mind and body. But if you’re unable to make it to the gym or dojo, there are alternatives. In 10 Tests, Exercises, and Games to Heighten Your Senses and Situational Awareness, Brett and Kate McKay offer some excellent resources to boost your powers of perception.

I was especially impressed by the McKays’ comments about the different roles of the senses in experiencing the world around us. Writers should be aware of how our senses inform us about our surroundings and arouse certain emotions. For example, while sight is vital, our sense of hearing is wired more directly to the primal areas of the brain, and therefore trigger emotional responses more directly and profoundly. Smell and taste stir both emotions and long-term memories — Marcel Proust’s madeleine episode from Swann’s Way is one famous literary example.

So when we translate our impressions of the world in our writing, we should take advantage of as many senses as possible to make our stories more realistic, believable, and enjoyable.

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29 thoughts on “Learning to see”

  1. As writers, memories produced by something sensory can spark a story. Those sparks can come any time, but for me, they usually come very early in the morning during my time of contemplation and prayer when one thought or memory leads to another and another. Very good post!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Those precious moments of silence are indeed productive. I think it was Stephen King who said that a walk, a nap, or even a good night’s sleep gave him time for “the boys in the basement” (the subconscious) to communicate with him.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Mike. The second paragraph of your piece is spot-on. And I think that many people besides artists and writers are attuned to patterns and details.— scientists, investigators, researchers, not to mention parents.

    Thanks for a very interesting read.

    Neil S.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Neil,

      That’s very kind of you. You’re right, some see patterns and connections that aren’t obvious to most, and following those insights often lead to greater discoveries.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I do so love Ursula LeGuin — and I hadn’t come across that quote, so I appreciate you sharing it. Your thought that writers need avenues to remain in touch with their senses, both internal and external, resonates with me. I’m finding mindfulness meditation to be a good conduit — as counterintuitive as that may seem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jan,

      I’ve heard mindfulness meditation is a useful means for many. I don’t see it as counterintuitive at all — we practice self-discipline to live more, not less.

      Like

  4. Walking through a bad neighborhood at night does loads for my situational awareness. Wouldn’t recommend it as an exercise done on purpose, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Margaret,

      I’d say that situational awareness would keep you from entering said neighborhood to begin with. My idea of winning a fight is NOT getting into one if you can.

      Like

  5. Great post, Mike. I really enjoyed it.

    Interesting point when you write: “For example, while sight is vital, our sense of hearing is wired more directly to the primal areas of the brain, and therefore trigger emotional responses more directly and profoundly.”

    Mark Twain had a powerful sense of image. When writing his autobiography much later in life, he remembered well the striking imagines of life on the river and in the prairies. But even more so he remembered, because it stayed with him so forcibly, the sounds of that time. He remembered clearly the crack of watermelon being split open, the dismal hoo-hoo of the owl and howl of the wolf and the sudden crack of summer thunder. Most of all he remembered the spinning wheel. “It was the mournfulness of all sounds to me . . . and filled my atmosphere with the wandering spirits of the dead.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeff,

      Twain is indeed one of the giants of literature. That keen ear picked up dialect better than any other writer before or since. The quote you cited from his autobiography perfectly illustrates how descriptions from the protag’s POV give readers insights into the protag’s inner soul and state of mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “That is the writer’s goal, to reawaken others to what it means to be human in an age that’s severed us from nature, memory, and connections. If we’re to tell others how it feels to be alive, we must first feel it ourselves…” I don’t know to say enough how necessary this post is. I wish they’d teach this in schools before we did our abc’s. It is that fibre in each of us unique to our own personal frame in the larger matrix of life. I can sit hours just listening to my blind son listening to nature, or the sounds of our street…. or the way he absorbs other people, or music. Its very different from the way I do it. I’m trained to follow what my ma or early tutors taught me. I’d rather learn from my son – often I think he’s listening to the sun. Vague as that may sound. Oh you’ve triggered me to write about this, thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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