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November 2000
Engaging the Senses

One of the Purple Ink members asked me if I would share some tips on how to add depth to both writings and drawings. As is typical for me, I decided to tackle the easier topic first. November is dedicated to writing. Next month, I'll talk about techniques I use to add the illusion of depth to my sketches.

The easiest way to add depth and character to any kind of writing is to engage the senses. This means that we should:

  1. Pay more attention to the five faculties by which we process the world around us; and,
  2. Add more sensuous details to our written words.
Engaging the senses while writing does not have to be a long, drawn out ordeal. Initially, you may need to remind yourself to notice and record certain things, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Paying more attention to our senses as we write helps us to pay more attention to life as we live it. This also works the other way around. Each quality feeds the other. An easy way to start paying attention is to simply begin each entry with a sensory "roll call". Take a few minutes to catalog the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and textures of where you are at that moment. Just list them at the top of the page. Then, as you begin writing, your mind will remember other such details from the rest of the day and weave them into your journal entry as if by magic.

We use our journals and diaries to capture and record some of the best, worst, and most mundane events of our lives. If we weren't interested in these events (or didn't think that somebody else might be), we wouldn't bother to write them down. We use our senses to experience life. We process everything around us through sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. By including more of our sensory perceptions in our notebooks, we root our everyday experiences to the page. Suddenly, our daily renderings become more accurate reflections of the layers and complexities of our lives.

Here are some journal activities that you can do to engage all five of your senses:

  • List everything within your range of vision right now. Include the crayon mark on the wall and the muddy pawprints that your dog just tracked all over the floor.
  • Use magazines or computer-generated fonts or rubber stamp letters to add meaning or enhance certain words in your writing.
  • Instead of taking a picture of something, take the time to describe the scene fully with words. Try to achieve the same level of detail that a photograph would provide. Remember: patience is a virtue (or so they say).
  • For one full day, write down every non-lingual sound you hear. There is no such thing as absolute silence. Even as I write this, in the quietness of my home, I can hear: the beep of the smoke detector; the scratch of my pen on the paper; a car passing by outside; my dog sighing as he shifts position in his sleep; a train whistle off in the distance; the slight buzz of the ceiling fan; the hum of the computer...
  • Use the sheet music from your favorite songs or compositions as backdrops for your journal entries. Or, you could use them to cover your notebook.
  • Write down snippets of other people's conversations. This is especially fun to do if you use public transportation. Or, try it the next time you are in the grocery store (pretend that you are marking things off on your grocery list). I have been intrigued by many a dialogue while standing in the check-out line.
  • Attach swatches of different fabrics or papers to your notebook pages. Include a piece from the curtains you just sewed. Add a sample from your favorite articles of clothing when you finally retire them from use. Now you've got both written and tactile memories.
  • Create mosaic borders around the edges of your writing. Use any material (stiff cardboard, bits of plastic, glitter), as long as it provides some kind of texture.
  • Make a list of textures that you like. Do you like to run your hands over crisp, cotton sheets? Satin ribbon? Stucco walls?
  • When you write about food, describe the flavors fully. Is the dish sweet, tart, bitter, or salty? Crisp, dry, moist, chewy? Light or dense? Flaky? Peppery?
  • Every so often, include directions for making your favorite dishes. Plan to thrill your great grandson by revealing the secret ingredients of your 7-layer, Dagwood-worthy, midnight snack-attack sandwich.
  • Put a drop or two of essential oil or a favorite fragrance into your bottle of ink.
  • List your favorite non-food smells.
  • Slip pieces of fragrant, dried herbs into the pages of your journal.
  • Make a list of smells that, in your mind, have meanings attached to them. For example, I know that my dog needs a bath when he starts to smell like corn chips. A scorched odor coming from the kitchen may mean that it's time to take the "cajun" cookies out of the oven.

Happy Scribbling!

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© 2000 Dawn R. Vinson. All Rights Reserved.