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On Utilizing The Five Senses

In my five years of experience teaching college English courses, I have noticed a trend amongst young writers toward taking for granted the fact that we experience life through our five senses. Beginning writers tend to overuse the sense of sight: describing things in terms of the visible without paying much notice to the four other senses. This is one reason why I love to teach Diane Ackerman’s masterpiece of nonfiction, A Natural History of Senses, which does a tremendous job getting students to think critically about all five of their senses.

(If you haven’t read it, you’ve got a perfect gift to ask Santa to bring you. Ackerman’s poetry helps transform the otherwise potentially stale material into something magically interesting. Also, if you get hooked, Ackerman has other wonderful books on the natural history of love, and of the brain, which are equally brilliant.)

I also like to share examples of descriptive passages which utilize various of the senses. One of my particularly favorite bits, which focuses our attention on the sense of smell, is from the opening of Patrick Suskind’s unbelievably transplendent novel Perfume:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and timorous disease.

I would be keen to learn about other examples of passages devoted to one of the five senses, especially: taste, touch, sound. Anything valuable come to mind?

11 thoughts on “On Utilizing The Five Senses

  1. Nabokov comes the mind when I think of descriptive passages involving the five senses. Let me see if I can cherry-pick a few. As for nonfiction, I highly recommend all of the following:
    Ways of Seeing, by John Berger
    On Looking, by Lia Purpura
    Audio-Vision, by Michel Chion
    Ways of the Hand and Talk’s Body, both by David Sudnow

    1. Love Lia Purpura’s lyric essays. The Berger is classic…there’s that one and About Looking, both killer. Am not familiar with Chion or Sudnow…will seek them out — thanks! And if you happen to find any choice Nabokov passages, please do share — much appreciated.

  2. I’d say the same tendency exists among writers of any age. Even the language we use to talk about setting (scene), and the evocation thereof (picturing) is visually oriented. The passage you cite (and the book itself), is particularly interesting, because smell probably gets the shortest shrift of all five sense (aside from taste, I suppose–but for things naturally present in any given real scenario). This is especially interesting in the context of speculation (evidence?) among researchers that smell triggers memory more profoundly than other senses.

    Does anyone go out of their way in their own composition to include description of all five senses?

    1. Yes, Perfume is unique in its focused attention on smell, for sure. I’d love to find out if there were comparable examples for sound or taste or touch.

      You’re absolutely right to point out how this tendency exists amongst writers of all ages. And I am certainly guilty of neglecting all five in my own work.

  3. I love this book. It was first given to me by an American Indian with a long braid down his back. There were sometimes feathers.

    I used to suggest this to everyone, but then people I liked and thought were smart came back and told me they hated the book, its “lack of research.” Screw them, I often thought.

    Senses and Love are my favorites. Then Cultivating Delight.

    Thanks, Chris. If you’re on board with Ackerman, I feel more sure of myself again.

    (You’ve undone some long-ago, deep-rooted damage to my self-esteem. Thank you.)

    1. Hey Molly — so glad to hear that you, too, love this book!

      I agree, screw anybody who chides Ackerman for lack of research…she’s not a scientist, she’s a poet. As John D’Agata has said before, there is more to truth than fact.

      Glad I’ve reaffirmed your conviction about this book!

      When I teach creative writing, I use three “textbooks”: this Ackerman, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and Aristotle’s Poetics. For beginning writers, I believe these three books constitute the greatest education available.

      1. John D’Agata is gold as is Bachelard. I’d say The Poetics of Space needs to be read and reread by every writer.

        Considering some of our chats, I was surprised to see Aristotle’s Poetics on your list. Do you include it so that beginning writers have a thorough understanding of what underpins traditional storytelling and so they have something as a foil?

        It’d be great to see a post from you about how you used these three books in class and how the students responded.

        1. Hey John,

          Yes, yes, exactly. As they taught us in film school: you have to learn the rules before you can break the rules without looking like an idiot. Thus, Aristotle is mandatory for beginners no matter what kind of writing they want to do: be it experimental, conventional realism, romance, sci-fi, or vampire.

          I’ll see what I can do re: a post on teaching those texts. Would be interested to hear what texts Lily, Molly, Sean, and others who teach creative writing use.

  4. Hi Christopher,

    Maybe not what you’re looking for, but Scott McCloud has written good bits on employing the five senses in (comics) writing in two of his books:

    Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993)
    Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels (2006)


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