“Writing from the Senses”

by Judy Jacobs

Don’t just describe what you see, but use what you taste, touch, smell and hear to enhance your writing.

That was the word from Laura Deutsch, who organized and led the September meeting held at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. And those who practice what she preaches in her new book, Writing from the Senses: 59 Exercises to Ignite Creativity and Revitalize Your Writing, will learn how to do so.

The meeting, as always, began with introductions and announcements. President Ginny Prior reminded everyone that fall elections are coming up, and that the terms of five Board members are over. Two will be running again, as will another three members, but she also encouraged more people to run. All that candidates have to do is to write a short statement about what they’d like to do on the Board and give a bit of background about themselves. Any more takers?

Next month’s meeting at the deYoung is a recruitment meeting, so members are encouraged to invite anyone they know who is a travel writer or blogger. We will be joined by the Outdoor Writers of California for a workshop led by Kim Grant, who has written some 40 guidebooks and is now the acquisitions editor for Sutro Media, which produces iPhone apps.

Ginny introduced new Associate member Julie Wright of (W)right On Communications in San Diego. Her clients include Tenaya Lodge, Carlsbad Hilton Garden Inn, Hilton Carlsbad Oceanfront Resort and Spa, and La Casa del Zorro in Borrego Springs.

Laura Deutsch began her presentation by explaining how she chose her publisher, Shambhala. Shambhala published Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and because Laura wants to be the next Natalie Goldberg, she thought it might help to have the same publisher.

Actually, three companies were interested in her book, but the other publishers wanted a how-to-write book, and Shambhala, a Buddhist publisher, had ideas that were more similar to her own.

Although Writing from the Senses is distributed by Random House, which has a marketing team, Laura has had to do a lot of the marketing herself. But those efforts have paid off, and she’s received emails from people all over the world who have seen her book.

The book includes exercises in free writing to prompt writing. “The beauty of free writing is that it can take you to places that you weren’t even conscious of,” she said. “If I do a free write, it can be a perfect little piece that I can insert into something bigger that I’m writing.”

At the end of each chapter of her book are instructions for a free write and examples written by her or one of her students. When she conducts writing workshops, though, Laura sometimes uses sensory rather than verbal prompts. For example, she may pass out little canisters of Vicks VapoRub for people to open up and take a whiff. Everyone has something to write about that, Laura said.

“We take the world visually, but a little sensory description can go a long way,” she said. “People who are new writers can write about the place for three or four pages but forget about what we smell, hear, taste and touch.”

Laura recommended that, when it comes to free writes, write as fast as you can. Don’t worry about being correct or finding the right words. Don’t think about social niceties. You can go back and edit it.

Take notes, she recommended. Very often you don’t know what your story is until you’ve lived through it, and it helps to have something to go back to.

Sound is an important sense. The book has a variety of exercises focusing on everything from the sounds of the city to the sounds of the country. There are sounds that you aren’t aware of until you really pay attention. She mentioned that when she’s in a foreign country, she’ll often tune into conversations she doesn’t understand, but the vibrato and the tone of the voices gives her a sense of the place.

At Buddhist retreats like Tassajara, where she has conducted workshops, there are so many beautiful sounds – bells, for example – that can add a lot to people’s writing.

Smell is one of the senses that we ignore the most, but it catapults us back in time. It can excavate memories and emotions long forgotten. Laura even writes about not-so-nice sensory experiences. She recalled a trip to Green Gulch Farm to smell the compost heap, which shouldn’t smell at all, but it had rained that day.

Taste is another important sense to tap into. When you eat lunch, really try to taste things, Laura said. And go beyond delicious. Read cookbooks or articles in food magazines to become familiar with the language of food.

As part of the meeting, Laura led us in a couple of writing exercises – one about the “palate of place” and another on “what your home says about you.”

A tasty lunch provided by La Boulange awakened our sense of taste, and a docent-led tour of the sensory garden in the San Francisco Botanical Garden allowed us to touch and smell flowers and plants, offering a real-life experience providing ideas for what we had spent the morning learning how to do.