Writing from the forgotten senses

IMG_3078For three days last week the wind blew the rain horizontally. It pelted against the window glass and the drops sounded like someone throwing sharp needles.

Last week I’d given myself a writing challenge: to write somewhere different each day, observing and recording the detailed images in the world around me. You can find my post about detail here.

In this wild weather leaving the house was as appealing as volunteering as a dart board.

So first confession: I ended up writing in the same place for the week.

But from my dining room table I noticed there were worlds of different details to explore: the alchemy in dawn light that can change the yellow tablecloth I bought in Menerbes to gold, and which then reminded me of the autumn vines across Provence; a single blue gym shoe with a white tick that swung from the electricity wire scaring the myna birds much better than the scarecrow I built to protect the olives; a knot in our cedar table that reminded me of the whirl in the fringe of my sister’s red hair.

By writing about the details I observed from the dining room table, I went on unexpected voyages through time and place. Most of the things I wrote about reminded me of other things I’d seen or experienced, some I hadn’t thought about for years. I wrote down whatever came to mind, to see where it led and for the pleasure of it. There was no pressure to produce anything. All I was doing was practicing and strengthening my observation skills and recording detail.

I learned that sight was my dominate sense, with a focus on its associated aspects of colour and light. As a lover of photography that didn’t surprise me.

So I started including the other senses. Have you ever tried to put into words what peanut butter toast tastes like? Or tried to describe what a very itchy insect bite feels like? That I’m not showing you what I wrote must give you some idea of the quality of these little “masterpieces.”

So every morning this week this is what I did. As soon as I got up I made a cup of tea, opened my writer’s journal and started writing. I placed no limits on how much or how long I wrote. I just wrote until I stopped writing, or when I needed to.

Today I completed the task I set myself. Achievement feels good, doesn’t it? And I really enjoyed doing it. I learned valuable things about my writing, like how much I suck at writing convincingly about the taste of things.

But I also feel bereft, as if a beloved and exciting friend had been for a visit and had just left.

So for the fun of it I want to set myself another writing challenge for this week: to practice writing about the physical world without using the sense of sight. I’ll have to rely heavily on those other under-used senses of touch, smell, taste and sound.

Why don’t you do it, too?

Let’s keep an eye out in our reading for how other authors write from the senses. If I find anything great I’ll post it here. If you find a great example please share it in the comments!

 

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Love the Details

Details should be more than a writer’s friend; details should be our lover. Get intimate, close up. Slow down. Examine him/her with intense and specific attentiveness.

Details make the place in our writing real. Whether it’s travel, memoir, stories or a novel we write, it’s the details we choose that can make our piece live on the page.

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Look at the details of place in this excerpt from the Master of Detail, Monsieur Proust.

To live in, Combray was a trifle depressing, like its streets, whose houses, built of the blackened stone of the country, fronted with outside steps, capped with gables which projected long shadows downwards, were so dark that as soon as the sun began to go down one had to draw back the curtains in the sitting-room windows; streets with the solemn names of saints, not a few of whom figured in the history of the early lords of Combray, such as the Rue Saint-Hilaire, the Rue Saint-Jacques, in which my aunt’s house stood, the Rue Sainte-Hildegarde, which ran past her railings, and the Rue du Saint-Esprit, on to which the little garden gate opened…

Proust paints a picture with words. We can see this dour village in country France. The action of drawing back the curtains as soon as the sun starts to set gives us a sense of how gloomy it is to live here. By naming the specific streets Proust gives the town a solid presence, an authenticity.

Or these details of place in Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap.the slap

Last summer she had stripped the room bare of all her posters, all the images of movie stars, celebrities and pop stars; she chucked out Robbie Williams and Gwen Stefani, Missy Elliot and Johnny Depp. The only picture she couldn’t bring herself to part with, was one she had ripped out of a TV Week, a small black and white photo of Benjamin McKenzie from The OC. It reminded her of Richie and she kept it Blu-Tacked at one edge of her bedroom mirror…There were only two posters on the walls now. One was of a clear blue desert sky shot through with razor wire, protesting the inhumane detention of refugees in Australia. She had snaffled it at an anti-racism rally the year before. The other poster was a stark image of an Arab child with a petrol pump murderously aimed at his head. In Arabic and in English the stark red lettering read NO TO BUSH’S WAR FOR OIL.

From the details Tsiolkas provides about the girl’s bedroom we learn a lot about her. We get a strong sense of this character, her concerns and passions, and the recent change she has undergone, without even meeting her. Tsiolkas names the objects specifically: we know each celebrity and what they stand for; it’s not just any magazine but TV Week; the tv programme is The OC; it’s an Arab child. These details do two things. They help us draw conclusion about what sort of person would have these things around them, would live in this place, and they provide a picture for us to see.

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And how evocative are these few well-chosen details Anthony Doerr uses to describe his characters in All the Light We Cannot See:

Levitte the perfumer is flabby and plump, basted in his own self-importance.

Or

Sargeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is forty-one years old, not so old that he cannot be promoted. He has moist red lips; pale, almost translucent cheeks like fillets of sole; and an instinct for correctness that rarely fails him.

Not only do we get a sense of what the characters look like but we also learn about an important aspect of their personality. “Basted in his own self-importance…”? Skin as translucent of fish fillets? Unpleasant men, both of them.

These examples show me just how important observation is as a means of collecting precise details to draw on. We need to see this wonderful world we inhabit and the world of our characters in microscopic detail if we hope to bring it to life on the page.

This week in my daily writing practice I’m going to slow down and get close and personal with the details around me. I challenge myself to go somewhere different everyday to observe and write what I see, smell, hear, taste and touch. Part of what I wrote today:

It is pouring this afternoon. I sit at the dining room table writing. Beside my journal is a cold cafe latte half-drunk and an empty Lindt wrapper. A cold breeze flits across my bent neck. The doors and windows are locked. I put down my pen and get up to turn on the overhead light. The shadow of the palm fronds thrashes desperately at my window as if trying to get in. Or to warn me of something.

Why don’t you take on this weekly challenge, too?

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New York – The Last Supper

  
The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station epitomises New York for me, so it’s fitting that our last meal would be an early lunch here before we head for the airport. 

Every time we visit we sit up at the bar so we can watch  the theatre. It smells clean and salty like a beach. The unopened oysters are stacked in metal bins under ice. The oysters shuckers are quick with the knife and the oysters flick open. One man’s job is to cook bowl after bowl of seafood chowder in two metal contraptions more suited to a science lab. We get whiffs of creamy seafood stew when he pours it into the bowls. The steam billows up around him like the steam from the road grids in Manhattan. 

  
We always order the same thing: a glass of champagne and a mixed dozen oysters each. The varieties of oysters make us east coast Australians drool: Belon from Maine, Blue Diamonds from Washington,  Cuttyhunk from Massachuesetts, and the list comes out at more than a dozen. 

But it’s not just for us that we keep coming back here. Once we took a dear friend there knowing he would love it. The Oyster Bar became one of his favourite places in New York too. Sadly he died a few years ago.

Today it feels as if he is sitting up at the bar with us, slurping the salty oysters through his teeth, holding up his glass for yet another toast to some wonderful aspect of our lives, just as he did in that one long fabulous lunch we shared here. Here, more strongly than anywhere else, I’m reminded of him.

To Biggins!

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December Rain – New York City

   
    
   

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Christmas in New York

  
Sometimes the only way to get where you want to go is to crawl @Rockefeller Centre skating rink.

  

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New York

  
New York City is in the midst of an Australian winter. Not that it would describe the unseasonable warmth that way, but for us Antipodeans that’s what it feels like. I’ve come with a suitcase of down and haven’t used it. Yet! 

The city is wearing its Christmas dress. Christmas fairy lights, wreaths, pine branch runners, and rows of Christmas trees for sale along the streets so it smells like a pine forest. But it’s still so warm the leaves in Greenwich village don’t know it’s time to leave! Sorry, bad joke. 

And dogs. Everywhere. The dogs have taken over since we were here last. 

  
A King Charles Spaniel trotted into the bookstore in front of us in a Greenwich Village yesterday. 

A white fluffy ball of a canine sat next to us last night at dinner in the local grill. It came in its own aqua Birken handbag. 

Tonight in the hotel lounge I shared an ancient chesterfield in front of the fire with a chichuaua who was propped in the corner wrapped in a rug. 

When did New York overtake Paris as the dog capital of the world? 

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Short Story Competition

 

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The Newcastle Short Story Award is now open to Australian residents.

You’ve got until midnight on 31st January 2016 to polish up your best story under 2,000 words.

The shortlisted stories from the inaugural competition in 2012, including one of mine, were published in the anthology The Mercreature and other stories.

Details for entering the Award are available here.

Good luck!

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A Literary Cafe in Paris

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Today La Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse is a far cry from the café where Ernest Hemingway wrote the first draft of ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ I had come expecting to find something comfortably modest and inexpensive, although ‘large enough for banquets or an occasional raucous demonstration.’

But the open terrace where Hemingway wrote in warm weather, nursing a café crème, with his pencils and blue-covered French notebooks, is now an elegant glassed-in restaurant hidden behind a hedge of shrubbery. It looks expensive and exclusive.

In the 1920s La Closerie des Lilas was a few blocks away from the more lively literary cafes of La Rotonde, Le Select and Le Dome. For this reason Hemingway wrote here when he didn’t want to be disturbed. He was later to say:

People from the Dome and the Rotonde never came to the Lilas. There was no one there they knew, and no one would have stared at them if they came.

We’d been warned about exorbitantly priced drinks and meals in Paris’s famous literary and artistic cafés as they cash in on their famous past. I remember all too well my kir at Les Deux Magots, the café made famous by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The kir was double the price and half the strength that I could get from the Café Bonaparte on the next corner.

It’s in the nature of pilgrims to ignore all sound advice, and strike out in pursuit of the holy. We step inside La Closerie des Lilas.

The light is diffused. The bar is all mahogany panels, paintings, photographs and posters, dark wooden cafe tables and chairs along a red leather banquette. Behind the bar the shelves are mirrored and the bottles backlit. It’s hardly modest.
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But because it’s our last day in Paris and because La Closerie de Lilas is so luxurious, and because Hemingway, whom I consider one of the best short story writers ever, wrote in this café, we lash out and buy two flutes of champagne.

As we wait I notice the brass name plaque on the table next to us. Edvard Munch. I point it out to my companion.

‘Aahhh!’ he screams with his hands against his cheeks.

Then I remember that each table in the bar carries the name of a famous client. I frantically search for the name plaque on our table. Let it be Ernest Hemingway. I find it in the opposite corner. With the low light and the gleam on the brass I can’t read it. I half stand up so I can see it properly.

Man Ray.
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If there is anyone from the ‘Lost Generation’ whose work I admire as much as Ernest Hemingway, it is Man Ray. I fell in love with his photography years ago after seeing his photograph of Virginia Woolf in which he caught perfectly her mixture of vulnerability and sensitivity.

Virginia Woolf photo by Man Ray

Virginia Woolf
photo by Man Ray


To celebrate this amazing coincidence we order half a dozen oysters.

La Closerie des Lilas is such a charming place I’m suspicious of how much it has changed since Hemingway’s day. I’m sure the way downstairs to the toilets wouldn’t have looked like this.
toilet closerie

Despite the plaque, our table probably never knew Man Ray, and I’m paying through the nose for the experience.

But the champagne fizzes up my nose, the oysters taste of the sea, the staff is welcoming, and my heroes once drank here just as I am.

I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

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Paris

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Lunchtime in a brasserie on the Place de la Sorbonne. This customer sat at the table next to us.

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Living a Dream – Day 20

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Our last day in Menerbes.

I was sitting out on the terrace this afternoon writing and someone in the valley lit a large fire. Australians tend to panic at the first whiff of smoke, but we’ve learned here that at this time of year the Luberon burns off its prunings. Every afternoon smoke pixelated the mountains and today it was staging a grand finale for us.

I’m not ready to leave yet.

But that’s the thing about dreams. They’re not real, and you eventually have to go back to reality. But the best thing about dreams is that they teach us something fundamental about what we want from life, and about who we are.

Living a dream is a journey.

There’s the physical journey of travelling into the world. It often involves going to unfamiliar places and doing and experiencing things we can’t or never think to do at home. This journey is what we usually think about when we think about travel.

The best travel involves a journey inside ourselves. These are often lived with greater intensity, like the excited state we inhabited as children where everything was a wonder. When the experiences move us or touch us in some deeper way, we often learn new things about ourselves, and this can change the way we view the world.

My time in Menerbes has been such a journey for me. But the questions I’ve been asking myself in the last few days have been, what have I learned, and what can I take from it back to my reality?

Firstly, these few weeks have consolidated things I knew about writing but didn’t completely trust.IMG_8324

1. Writing every day, regardless of what you write, improves your fluency and makes it much easier to express yourself on paper.

2. The time to dream and do nothing is crucial to writing. This is how you get under the surface of the things that interest you.

3. The loose pyjama approach takes away all the anxiety about writing and ‘producing’ something. It fosters a calm place from which to write and the results are often surprising and exciting.

What have I learned about myself?

I’ve learned that time away from the demands and commitments of home is essential for my growth as a writer. There will always be something or someone that will take precedence over my writing. The people I love will always come first.

So I’ve learned while I’ve been here that sometimes it’s necessary to take the power away from myself and live, just for a while, in a dream that is just for me. And, more importantly, that doing it is okay.

My project of blogging every day while I’ve been living my dream in Menerbes has come to an end.

Thank you very much to the people who have been following my adventures, and a special thank you to those who have commented, whether on the blog or privately. You have inspired me to keep writing.

I’ll be back next week from Paris! Hope you’ll join me there!

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