Sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. I counted five, right? Five senses which govern our experience of the world, and lead us—luxuriously, deliciously, gloriously—through life.
We often talk of a sixth sense, the guide that alerts us to danger or deception, leads us to opportunity or outcome. This intuition of ours is also a governor, every bit as vital as our biological sensors.
Each of these six senses is essential to the writing process. But I suggest that a seventh sense is required for any sort of sustained activity which would yield a viable, worthy result—whether a sonata, a sonnet, or a work of sculpture. I’m talking about the sense of discipline. And because I’m not a composer or a musician but an artist of a different sort—a writer—this essay is about the seven senses of writing.
One could argue that honesty is a sense, but it’s not. It’s a virtue. And since honesty is important in one’s writing I must admit to stumbling upon this theory by accident, and by extension, through my sense of intuition. Yes, Freud. I know. There are no accidents.
Here’s my non-accident: I was commenting on a Facebook post about ways to overcome writer’s’ block, quoting a friend’s advice to burrow deeply into each of the five senses to get out of a jam. In the aptly titled (for me) “7 Things I’ve Learned so Far,” A.B. Westrick offers this help in an essay on WritersDigest.com:
When I’m stuck, instead of walking away from a manuscript, I’ll try to move more deeply into it. I’ll identify the odors in my character’s life… the textures… the sounds… air stirring in an overhead duct… a mosquito feasting on an ankle… dogs barking in the distance… etc. I’ll give my character something to eat, then I’ll savor the taste. I’ll notice the angle of light, the quality of air, the temperature of skin. I’ll write down everything my character experiences through the five senses. Then I’ll consider my character’s desires in that particular moment… and I’ll relish them… and see what emerges. I don’t necessarily insert all of those details into the scene, but the exercise of identifying them loosens me up, getting me unstuck. Sometimes insights emerge. Sometimes the character takes the story in a new direction.
Great stuff, right? Except, when I hastily offered my comment, I referred to “the seven senses,” a mistake that would embarrass any fourth-grader. But I’m trusting my instincts here, because there are no accidents. Here’s another way of looking at it: Years ago, when I was in college, the poet Dennis Schmitz, whose work I had been studying in a Guest Writer course, visited our campus and spoke to us about stream of consciousness, using an anecdote to illustrate his point. A student, addressing a class about the topic, wrote this on the board by mistake:
STEAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS
The bonus lesson? Trust the mistakes you make. As a journalist ought to “follow the money,” creative writers ought to follow the accidents. You never know where they will lead. Power your writing by the steam of your own consciousness, or—if you’re a stickler for precision, by the steam of your subconscious. I think you get the idea.
Contemplating my steam-of-consciousness counting error led me to conclude that there really must be seven senses to engage in the pursuit of art, or else why would I have said so? There are no accidents.
The common core of five senses is a given, the kernels within the writer’s golden rule. “Show, don’t tell.”
In Still Writing, Dani Shapiro’s elegant primer/memoir, she reminds us that in order to feel the “essential humanness” of a character,
we must have access to his body. This is one of the simplest ways to bring a character to life on the page, and yet we so easily forget. If we inhabit his body as he walks down the path, things will happen in the writing: the bumblebee, the honeysuckle, the fortune cookie. His musings will be associated, connected to the corporeal present. After all, what else is there? We see, smell, taste, hear, and touch. The senses are gateways to our inner lives. [Emphasis added.]
This common core of five senses is, therefore, critical to generating the steam we need to keep writing, the steam to find our way deep into the story.
Our sixth sense, intuition, is closely linked to our sense of sound. We must listen to the whispering, often unintelligible sounds of our instincts—in life and on the page. We think we want to write one thing, but a force keeps nudging us away in another direction, towards what we must write, until we find ourselves lost in an idea that demands exploration, a plot twist that takes our character to a place not mapped on any outline.
“Something told you to do as I say, didn’t it?” That’s the stunningly misanthropic and arrogant theater critic Addison DeWitt talking to the young actress Eve Carrington in the classic film that is all about her. He’s teaching her about the value of her own intuition, right before exposing her deceptions. Here’s more of the scene from Joseph Mankiewicz’s brilliant screenplay, All About Eve:
Then if you won’t get out, I’ll
have you thrown out.
She goes to the phone.
Don’t pick it up! Don’t even put your hand on it…
She doesn’t. Her back is to him. Addison smiles.
Something told you to do as I say,
didn’t it? That instinct is worth
millions, you can’t buy it, cherish it,
Eve. When that alarm goes off,
go to your battle stations…
The sixth sense, the intuitive sense, is as important to actors and liars as it is to writers.
And what of the seventh sense—discipline—that I identified at the start of this essay? You can have instincts as sharply honed as your sensory equipment, but without discipline, nothing gets done.
I know this all too well. I’ve wanted to write ever since I was a child and set up a TV tray as a desk, with a rose in a bud vase for inspiration. (I wish I could remember where I ever got that clichéd notion!) But a lack of discipline has kept me from achieving the career I could have had. It’s true in my daily life, as well. For example, I dislike exercise, dislike anything that demands I get up out of the cozy bed at an ungodly hour and move around. (I’m always pleased, and a little smug, on those mornings when I get over myself and just get out there and walk the three miles.) And about that cake: It’s so delicious. I shouldn’t have any more, but I’ll just cut this little corner. And all the while my lack of physical discipline is evident when I look into the mirror.
And so it is with writing. I should get started, but first I’ll just read the headlines in the Times, or check my email or Facebook. As soon as I do any of these things, I’m a goner. There’s no chance of getting back to that hazy state of awakening, that anteroom where what you’ve dreamed the night before is within reach, and you can unlock its logic in the early light of day and create something, seemingly, out of thin air.
Dani Shapiro calls this “riding the wave … learning to withstand those wild surges [of energy] because everything we need to know, everything valuable, is contained within them.” Her book shamed me into my relatively new habit of not looking at e-mail or checking the Internet before sitting down to write, and of staying put in my chair once I’ve started. Performing any of the tasks of daily life—and there are so many of them—before you’ve put the time in at your desk will send you tumbling down the rabbit hole. These things are important and must get done, but not at the expense of writing. Put in the writing time first. The laundry and the marketing and the errands will be your reward. That, and finished work.
Take this essay you’re reading. This morning, as soon as I woke up, I opened the Evernote app on my iPad. I’ve taken to writing first thing, in bed, in this manner. My husband brings me my hot lemon water and my first cup of coffee, otherwise I’d never be able to lift my head, and then I begin writing. When I feel as though I’ve gotten down what I have to get down, I e-mail the “note” to myself so it’s waiting on my computer when I’m ready to work at my desk, after breakfast.
I did not suddenly cultivate this type of discipline by looking up at the calendar and realizing I turn 58 this year with a scant body of work to show for it. No, enforced immobility is what brought me this far. I broke my foot in November, and I’m still in a cast. The days and weeks and months in which I could not easily move about to dodge the writing—walk the dog! do the laundry! drive to Blackbird Bakery for some chocolate chip cookies!—have been a gift. I’ve formed reading and writing habits these last few months that I suspect will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Not that it would have been easy to do this before. From the time I was 16 and for most of my adult life, I’ve worked, and I spent most of my working life at a job where I had to write every day. I’ll never forget telling the writer Diane Vreuls about the new job I got in Oberlin’s Office of Communications so many years ago. “It’s important to pay the bills,” she said, “but a writer should really avoid having a job writing.”
It wasn’t long before I realized what she was talking about.
You’d think that writing daily—and getting paid for it!—would be a good thing, but it’s not the same kind of writing that requires you to be solitary and dig deeply until the words come, to create something that approximates art. Not to mention the fact that writing for pay can leave you exhausted, with little energy to switch gears and face the blank computer screen at home.
No, it’s taken a couple of major life changes for me to get to the place I’m at today, a place where I can go into my writing office and work. For more than two years, I’ve written a blog—a kind of exploratory enterprise that has led me to realize that I can do the sort of writing I need and want to do. And I’ve slouched toward some sort of discipline in doing it. After the foot fracture, the slouching became hobbling, but I’m getting there.
I’ve spent most of the day on this essay—from the moment I awakened until now, as I type this, 2:53 PM. That’s what discipline is. I might stumble here and there, but I’m here now, and like the title of Shapiro’s book, I’m “still writing.”
(One more thing. When I took a short break earlier, I found a video by Ira Glass that speaks beautifully to the idea of discipline, of “doing one thing over and over and over.” I think you’ll love it.)