The Mighty Power of Our Senses
|Momma Nell's Recipe Box|
And I was instantly transported back to her house.
The contents smelled just like Momma Nell’s home. But not like what you’re thinking. It wasn’t the scent of years-ago grease from all that Southern fried chicken and steak. Instead, it was slightly musty, sort of like when you open an old book.
Momma Nell had lived in the same house for over fifty years and though it was immaculately clean, it was also like a museum. Sort of a “Life in the 1950s” kind of exhibition. And that smell—dry, musty, with just a hint of Pledge—assaulted my senses and all kinds of memories flooded back.
How powerful our senses are! And yet, how often we leave them out in our writing. Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, the point is this: if you want to make your writing stronger, add sensory details.
It’s easy when we’re writing about sensory-rich subjects. Even I, notorious for bare bones writing, can come up with some pretty good and smelly details if I’m writing about Christmas. But put my character in some average spot, like an apartment, on an ordinary day in June, and I’ve got nothing.
I think writing with sensory details must take practice, and I admit that it’s not high on my practice list. But it should be, and I realized that little nugget of writing wisdom the minute I had a whiff of that recipe box. That smell connected me to a hundred different feelings and images, in just a fraction of a second. Imagine how many words I’d need to make that same connection if I were describing how my mother-in-law's house looks!
I’m going to put that recipe box on my desk so I’ll remember this lesson. But I have another motive as well.
I didn’t find the index card for her fruitcake cookies, but I did find a couple of other recipes that looked interesting. Some were typed, but others were carefully written, and I thought how glad I was that she’d put them down, in her hand. There was something very comforting about reading those words in her handwriting. I suppose that, again, it was a sensory detail and I sighed, remembering Momma Nell in the kitchen.
I remembered, too, that one year, I’d written down my favorite family recipes—it didn’t take long; I’m not much of a cook—and gave the book to my daughter for Christmas. But I never quite got around to doing the same for my two boys.
I hope this is the year that I’ll get that gift completed. So that someday, my children will read a recipe in my chicken scratch handwriting and maybe a hundred different memories will come flooding back to them, too.
Well, okay, maybe two or three memories. It’s the thought that counts, right?
~Cathy C. Hall