– By Beth Carter
A creative writing class I took in college many years ago has always stuck with me. The professor, Jo Van Arkel, was a talented writer and a caring teacher. She had the ability to make a rock creative (and I told her so). I took three of her classes–Expository Writing, Creative Writing I, and Creative Writing II. I adored the challenge of each class, loved writing essays, short stories, fiction, and non-fiction. But one of the exercises really stood out as a way to strengthen my writing by simply looking, listening, touching, smelling, and tasting. Here it is:
Choose a location–indoors or out–quiet or noisy. Notice everyone and everything around you. Tap into all five of your senses for an hour minimum and write everything down. (There was probably a bit more on the instruction sheet but this is the gist of it.)
Where did I choose to go for my observation exercise? It didn’t take me long to decide. I chose a bus stop in a seedy, run-down area where I grew up. And, boy, the locale–and people-didn’t let me down. Here’s what I observed…
I sat on a cold, hard concrete slab where patrons waited for the bus. I had a yellow legal pad and a granola bar. This was before cell phones so I was not distracted. As I made notes, the delicious scent of buttered popcorn from the local movie theater (where I worked as a teen) wafted through the air. The smell brought back happy memories and made me hungry. Exhaust from cars and buses filled my nostrils. Cigarette smoke from a passerby filled the air and assaulted my senses. The acrid smoke sat on my tongue like yesterday’s moldy mushrooms. Breaks screeched from drivers not paying attention and nearly rear-ending other cars. Shivering, I pulled my sweater tighter as the cold, fall breeze blew through the open space. I cursed myself for not wearing heavier clothing for an outdoor exercise. As I took copious notes, my hair swirled around my head as the wind picked up but I was all in. I was not leaving before my hour was up.
A guy wearing dirty jeans and worn tennis shoes approached. I felt a chill run up my spine as I looked from left to right toward empty sidewalks and cars lining the streets. My pulse quickened and hair stood on the back of my neck. I said a quick prayer that I’d be safe and was mad at myself for not telling anyone where I was. I was a single mom and in my mid-twenties. This was possibly not the wisest decision but it was too late now. The guy was persistent and tried to sell me drugs. My heart hammered as I tried to be polite and not tick him off. I willed someone–anyone–to come to the bus stop. Soon, a woman wearing a purple dress arrived. She was obviously mentally ill. That wasn’t what I had in mind when I asked for company. The poor woman jabbered to herself and cursed the world–loudly. Tears sprang to my eyes as I wondered how she ended up on the streets. Thankfully, a young man and woman soon joined our motley crew. I was cold and my legs ached from the cement bench but I continued scribbling down my observations. The man and woman (who had walked in separately) quickly got cozy right in front of me. I wrote down their conversation, and since I had taken shorthand, I could get their comments almost verbatim. My one-hour exercise turned into two hours. Afterward, when I polished my thoughts, a 2-3 page essay developed. I remember my professor said, “So, I story emerged, eh?” Yes, it did.
As you can see, all five senses–sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste were ignited. And if you believe in the sixth sense, you just might feel spirits or see a ghost! I’m sure I’m forgetting many of the bus stop details since it has been nearly *cough* 25 years. I encourage you to try this observation exercise to deepen your writing. Whether you choose a bus stop like I did, a bowling alley, coffee shop, library, the beach, a park or a mall, I bet a story will emerge before your very eyes. I guarantee if you focus, you’ll find it easier to tap into your senses as you write.
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