writing

An Exercise in Description

A couple of months ago (November, to be precise) I was invited to teach a mini-writing workshop for several middle school classes in one of the school districts near my home. I accepted readily; it offered a new challenge; I would gain local exposure (assuming that kids talked to their parents and teachers to each other); and perhaps most important, it would give me the chance to encourage and maybe inspire the next generation of writing talent.

I firmly believe that all children are, by nature, artists. They love to draw, paint, sing, and compose stories and poems. Sometime around the onset of puberty, this love of artistic expression goes away, whether because of time limits, distractions, or because they are told they are no good and even if they are, there is no way to make a living with their art. In short, they’re wasting they’re time.

I disagree. Obviously, I don’t think artistic pursuits are wastes of time.

So I devised my workshop to be encouraging what they are currently doing and, perhaps, give the students a hint at how to develop their craft.

The subject was writing description, because that is usually what the neophyte writer first attempts and so often gets wrong. I used the device of the senses as a way of crafting vibrant descriptions. All humans experience their universe through the various senses, so it can be a readily available common language.

In preparation, I made three lists of senses: the primary physical senses, secondary physical senses, and what I call the social senses.

For the first exercises, I gave the students the list of five physical senses:

Sight

Sound

Smell

Taste

Touch

Among most humans, sight is the strongest sense and that is usually reflected in description. Asked to describe a room, most people will describe what they see. That can seem cardboard and contrived. Which leads to exercise 1.

Exercise 1

Write a short paragraph—three or four sentences—describing a room, using at least three of the five primary senses.

Exercise 2

Write another short paragraph describing a room, but this time don’t use the sense of sight. How would a blind person experience the room?

After discussing the results of the first two exercises, I then introduced (by having them think of them) the secondary senses:

Pressure

Heat/cold

Where your body is (hands, feet, nose, etc.)

Pain

Illness/wellness

Balance

Hunger

Thirst

Fatigue/tiredness

Time

Direction

The students seemed to enjoy coming up with the list of senses as much as they did the writing. Next comes exercise 3.

Exercise 3

Write another short paragraph, but this time, use only one from the primary physical senses and two from the list of secondary senses.

Finally I introduced the list of what I call social senses:

Belonging/alienation

Danger/safety

Value/pride

Happiness/sadness

Being watched

Déjà vu

Curiosity

Attraction/revulsion

Envy/jealousy

Fairness/justice

Excitement

Exercise 4

Write another short paragraph describing a place or situation, but use a sense from all three categories to describe it.

The whole point of these exercises was to get the students to think outside the zones they were used to thinking in. From their reactions and the paragraphs they wrote, it seemed to work. They were suddenly thinking in ways they hadn’t tried before.

And to all those who tell us that young people today are not interested in learning, or working to improve their skills, I can tell you every student wrote in my workshops and most shared their efforts with the rest of the class. I was impressed and pleased.

Whether I encouraged any of them to continue writing is a different story, one whose ending has not yet been determined.

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