The Writing Process, Part 4: Sensory Details

hailstonesI was about 23, teaching 5th grade in a diverse Philadelphia public school. Hailstones and Halibut Bones, the beautiful book of color poetry that inspires kids out of mediocre writing, sparked lovely poems in my own students. (It is the most recent edition that offers vibrant pictures). The contagious delight the kids took playing with words that detailed everyday sensory experiences prompted a color poem out of their teacher too. It was a special experience for us to write together.

Once the brainstorm page filled up, the poems wrote themselves. We divided a sheet of paper into six rows, each representing a physical sense with the addition of one for emotions (Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, Feeling). Then simply named observations and experiences in their category.  White: cotton candy for taste, blank coloring page for touch, chocolate for taste. Writers young and old will hear “show, not tell” or “paint a picture,” but may not quite know how to go about it. Sensory details paint clear verbal pictures, not unlike a 3-D presentation that appears to move toward the reader. They serve as a powerful writing tool for the grade school student as well as the blogger and the author on his fourth novel.

Here is the poem I wrote alongside my students that I’d completely forgotten about. I tried to keep it on the simple side so it’d be relatable for them. Feeling sheepish. I’d love to revise but share it to offer a glimpse of something born in happy league with little writers. Note the progression of a lifetime within the poem:

 


Time

White is
baby powder,
cotton candy
from the “Candy!” shouter,
eager page of a coloring book,
a glob of frosting some finger took,
childhood paste,
little league socks,
the vanilla taste,
background of polka dots,
a special chocolate to crave,
ivory pearls that swim cream waves,
a careful prom dress,
marble sheet on a winter lake,
the bride in grace,
a queenly wedding cake.
A piano key, white
plays a note of simplicity.
White is romance heaven-blessed.
It is the color of promise
and rest.
A dependable soul,
behind every color hides
a white shadow.
White hair is
humanity’s confession –
in age less the color of a question –
“Strength is gossamer,
time but a loan,”
white is the color
of home.

The Writing Process, Part 3: To Be or Not To Be

I’m not asking Hamlet’s existential question. To be or not to be? To live or kill myself? It’s literal grammar.

To eat –> She eats.
To dance –> She dances.
To be –> She be.  She is.

The verb TO BE conjugates, or breaks down, into the form is when referring to a singular third party he, she, or it. She be sweet. She is sweet. TO BE morphs into are in the plural. They be sweet. They are sweet. 

In all its conjugations, the verb TO BE serves as a referential foundation in the English language. TO BE enables us to assign description and value to people, things, ideas.

The trees are lovely in the wind.
Trees = Lovely
TO BE would be impossible not to use in speech and writing.

But artful writing shouldn’t depend on this verb. You want to minimize its appearance. As a verbal equal sign, TO BE makes assertions that fall flat. Good writing carries momentum. Because verbs are action words, they propel the message and description forward.

Rather than take up a whole sentence just to say the trees are lovely (apart from poetic circumstances that ask for this declaration), you could say

The lovely trees sway and bow in the wind.

Now the verbs sway and bow paint a picture the are doesn’t.

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Here’s a clip from the post The Invisible Woman:

So-nyo, an elderly mother of four grown children, vanishes in the Seoul subways.

I could have written
So-nyo is an elderly mother of four grown children who vanishes in the Seoul subways.

The line I settled on runs on only one verb vanishes. I didn’t want to waste time and words stating what So-nyo is when I could show it while saying something more interesting or informative. My point is that she disappeared, not that she was an elderly mom of four.

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I dug up two written samples from my high school days just now. *Wrinkle nose*

The mathematical straight line whose end arrows stretch on to eternity is the prime example.  The line will always be at least a billionth of a millimeter off…

Twenty-five years later, I would say
The…line…serves as the prime example. It will remain at least….

Serves, stands, remains, runs are picturesque alternatives to is.

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James’ simple act of giving milk for the sick children is profound and laudable in its contrast to the headmaster’s pretentious and futile plans for the village.

Revise!

James’ simple, profound act of providing milk for the sick stands in glaring contrast to the….

The whole first sentence rests on the verb is. If you blip it, you are forced to retrieve a more interesting verb which in turn carries the writing forward rather than keep it static.

Circling back to our starting question, then:
when writing, it is better not to be.