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The Creative Compass Excerpts: Sense and Sensibility

The Creative Compass

Sense and Sensibility

By Dan Millman & Sierra Prasada

Every fine emotion produced in the reader has been,
and must have been, previously felt by the writer,
but in a far greater degree.

— Arnold Bennett

As you tell your story, focus on creating a rich sensory and emotional experience, one that makes sense to readers so they can more fully experience it. Do so because you’ll never abandon a draft that makes you feel, nor will your readers easily set aside the book it may become.

From those principles conceived by fellow and past writers to serve readers — what we’ve previously called craft — emerges a collective reverence for writing to the senses. Our senses underpin the primal power of stories to make us feel.

“We need authors to pay attention to both sense and sensibility so we can at once lose and find ourselves as we read.”

More concretely, the senses act on both our bodies and our imaginations, and they interact closely with our emotions. The mere description of a eucalyptus leaf, for instance, can summon up an otherwise remote aroma and texture, as well as memory-borne sensations like nostalgia or exhilaration. Consider this excerpt from Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday:

There’s a taste in the air, sweet and vaguely antiseptic, that reminds him of his teenage years in these streets and, of a general state of longing, a hunger for life to begin that from this distance seems like happiness.

And another from Junot Díaz’s short story “Ysrael”:

He’d punch me in the shoulder and walk on until what was left of him was the color of his shirt filling in the spaces between the leaves. Something inside of me would sag like a sail. I would yell his name and he’d hurry on, the ferns and branches and flower pods trembling in his wake.

As McEwan’s and Diaz’s words demonstrate, it’s no accident that the word sense refers at once to clarity of understanding (as in something that “makes sense”) and awareness of environment, whereas sensibility covers sensitivity to emotion and moral discernment. We need authors to pay attention to both sense and sensibility so we can at once lose and find ourselves as we read.

When we understand its movements, a great story draws us into what novelist John Gardner describes as a “continuous narrative dream.” An author’s deft use of the senses — all eight of them, including kinesthetic (movement), vestibular (balance), and organic (such as hunger or thirst) — helps us vicariously experience strangers’ love, grief, and pain to a degree that sometimes exceeds what we’ve felt in our own lives. Such stories also reveal to us depths we hadn’t known we possessed — literature generally has a lighter touch than life, but stories and essays shape who we are in a similar way, by connecting us with events that alter our perspectives and make new reactions possible.

In order to stimulate your own and your readers’ sensations and sensibilities, you need to raise the stakes on characters’ desires and obstacles; root your narrative in a believable story world and setting; and apply judicious sensory detail to enliven and authenticate the geography that shapes destiny.

Just as great challenges in our own lives require a proportional commitment, we’re more likely to devote ourselves to a character undertaking a grail quest than a stroll to the corner store. In the following excerpts, the authors deploy the senses, often subtly, to magnify reality and raise the stakes. In George Saunders’s short story “Tenth of December,” a young boy and an old man each risk death in an attempt to save each other: “The kid’s pants were frozen solid. His boots were ice sculptures of boots.” In his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Tim O’Brien tells of how he can’t bring himself to let down his community, so he goes to fight in Vietnam:

By noon the next day our hands were in the air, even the tough guys. We recited the proper words, some of us loudly and daringly and others in bewilderment. It was a brightly lighted room, wood-paneled. A flag gave the place the right colors, there was some smoke in the air. We said the words, and we were soldiers.

In her travel memoir Finding George Orwell in Burma, the pseudonymous Emma Larkin draws on Orwell’s facts and fictions to expose the horrors of life under the military junta without endangering the people who spoke with her:

He uncovered an old Penguin copy of Animal Farm. It had the familiar orange and white stripes on the cover, and yellowed pages that felt very slightly damp. He told me it was the first novel he had read in English. “It is a very brilliant book and it is a very Burmese book. Do you know why?” he asked, poking a finger enthusiastically in my general direction. “Because it is about pigs and dogs ruling the country!”

Ultimately, life-or-death stakes lay bare the underlying forces that drive characters, while use of the senses intensifies our involvement in the characters’ lives.

As you draft, make sure that your characters’ physical and emotional interactions with the places they inhabit shape your page-to-page plot. In many stories, the environment plays such a powerful role as to become a principal character in its own right, as in The Perfect Storm, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and A Girl of the Limberlost. Like water taking the shape of its container, stories both emerge from and adapt to their staging grounds, whether a Russian country estate (The Cherry Orchard), a Chicago public housing complex (There Are No Children Here), or a geisha district in Kyoto (Memoirs of a Geisha).

“Ultimately, life-or-death stakes lay bare the underlying forces that drive characters, while use of the senses intensifies our involvement in the characters’ lives.”

A realistic setting that we can see, smell, hear, touch, and even taste will also add greatly to the credibility of your story. Readers find Elizabeth George’s British mystery novels so convincing that they’re often surprised to discover that she’s an American residing in Southern California. Writers living in the United Kingdom might find the research for a comparable series more convenient, but they must labor no less if they hope to make readers fully believe in the places they describe.

If it’s a fictional place, it only needs to feel true, but if it’s a real place, then it also needs to be accurate. A pioneer of African literature, Chinua Achebe rejected colonialist works that made readers feel by depicting his homeland in a false and negative, if vivid, light. “It began to dawn on me that although fiction was undoubtedly fictitious it could also be true or false, not with the truth or falsehood of a news item but as to its disinterestedness, its intention, its integrity,” he wrote. When you work with feelings, you also need to exercise good sense. As Pablo Picasso observed, “Art is a lie that helps us to see the truth.” When we write fiction, we’re permitted to sacrifice lesser truths in order to create moving and thought-provoking illusions, but we should do so with the aim of revealing greater truths.

As you draft, you’re striving to bring illusions to the page, but these same illusions can help you create if you’re prepared to exercise your imagination in a new way. A strong sense of place, for instance, might enable you to compensate for the tyranny of the unknown that reigns over all those yet-to-be-written pages. In the television series Battlestar Galactica, the alien Cylons possess such powers of projection that they can perceive themselves in a forest or on a beach when they’re actually walking the bland corridors of their base ship.

Each day you draft, you confront the void of the blank page, yet you have the same power to imagine that void giving way to the world of your story, whether you’re witness to a group of uniformed officers approaching you across the interlocking decks and corridors of a light-speed vessel or a Jesus lizard in flight from a predator, making a mad dash across the surface of an Amazon river. Let images subsume the white space onto which you type, and spill out across your desk, onto your floor. Take it further and step directly into the world you’re creating. Open yourself to the full sensory experience of events making their way onto your pages. And feel your way onward. •

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Dan Millman and Sierra PrasadaThis article is extracted from The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way from Inspiration to Publication copyright ©2013 by Dan Millman and Sierra Prasada Millman. More »