December 4, 2020

Enliven Your Memoir with Sensual Details

When we write memoir, we’re creating a story, and re-creating moments in our lives rich in detail, experienced through the body. But sometimes we forget or don’t yet grasp just how much we need to bring forward those details so the reader can live that experience alongside us. Writing stories means that our task is to create “real life” experiences a reader can participate in, that reach into their hearts and minds. How do we do this trick? Create that kind of intimacy? The secret: write scenes that bring the reader fully into your mind and body by using “sensual details,” showing through our bodies and perceptions the aliveness of the moment.

Using sensual details means painting a picture with vivid specifics—not “the Plains landscape was beautiful” but “the azure blue sky seemed to go on forever, dotted by white fluffy clouds that looked like horses.”

Colors bring our world into focus for the reader. What color was the dress you wore to the prom? What shades were your grandmother’s roses? Then show how their scent made you feel safe and welcome. Red is vibrant—it’s also crimson and scarlet. Find the range of words that offers dimension and tone. Grey might suggest a scene that is neutral, or it might be sad or even peaceful. There’s a range of blues, from cheerful to cold.

We live in a world of sound. It’s all around us, even if we learn to tune it out. The growl of an engine, the percussion of heels on a sidewalk, the moan of a train whistle—all these details reveal the world we live in, and invite the reader fully into the world of the story.

And smells. Mary Karr says that placing ourselves in a yummy kitchen with delicious smells will open the door to the past. Think chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin pie, turkey and dressing at Thanksgiving. Aromas are a powerful way to trip into memory—think of your mother’s perfume or hairspray, your grandfather’s aftershave or the aroma of a pipe, flowers in a garden, the smell of concrete after rain, the oil of an engine being repaired. The unique scent of a person brings up feelings and memories.

Texture is another portal to sensory detail. Is your world slick with rain or powdery dry from drought? Sandy, gritty, or bumpy? Or is it smooth like a well-sanded table? People have texture, too—hair, clothes, skin, fabrics. Houses, cars, airplanes—everything around us has texture and often we take it for granted. Sharp, metallic, soft, fluffy—these are different sensations with emotional resonance.

Here’s a beautiful passage using sensual detail from Sue William Silverman’s most recent memoir, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences:

The essence of Route 17 will rise up around me, when I become one with the highway, embody it. I rest my head on the seat back and close my eyes. Horns, air brakes, tires. A siren in the distance. . . Inside [the bowling alley] I slip into rented shoes, scuffed and worn, smelling of sweat. How could I be happier, what with my hair teased and sprayed to an impermeable Aqua Net helmet? Eyelids shadowed. Lips opalescent pink. Red and blue neon beer signs flash. The jukebox rocks.

In this short excerpt, Sue creates a world in New Jersey in the 1960s and invites us in. As you think of the scene you will write, close your eyes and listen, smell, imagine the colors and the textures. Experience how it felt to live that moment. Then write.


Want to learn more about sensory details and how to use them to improve your scenes? If so, we invite you to our 6-consecutive-week ELEVATE YOUR MEMOIR BOOT CAMP starting on September 22, 2020.

In Week 5, our guest teacher Sue William Silverman, author of How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, and 6 other books (including 3 other memoirs), will teach about “savory senses,” shining light onto how much it matters that we draw upon our physical surroundings for images and how doing so supports us to discover the metaphors of our narratives, thus turning experience into art.

Check out our BOOT CAMP (September 22-October 27). We hope you’ll join us for this topic and more—and discover new ways to ELEVATE YOUR MEMOIR.   

About Linda Joy Myers

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