Remember the Senses: Paying Attention for Better Description

by Amber Lea Starfire on June 23, 2013

I don’t know about you, but I have a terrible time paying attention to what is going on around me. I forget to stay in the present, in my body, and with intention. Instead, I (my conscious self) am up in my head, thoughts whirling around like theme park rides, complete with screaming passengers. I’m creative, passionate, active — always doing, doing, doing. But ask me to tell you what something smelt like, or the color of a girl’s eyes, or the texture of a piece of fruit I ate earlier in the day, and … well … the only thing I can do is stop, close my eyes, and try to recreate the moment of my experience. I’m mostly successful with this technique but, as you may have noticed, it requires me to slow down. How much richer might my writing be if I were to spend more time paying attention and less time in the theme park of my mind?

Some people are naturally meditative (or so it seems to me). I can be, but I have to periodically recalibrate myself to remember I live in a world full of sensory information, not a world comprised entirely of thought.

Recalibration means performing exercises that help bring my attention back to the concrete experience of this world. Since I’m once again needing to come down to earth, I’d like to invite you to join me. Are you game?

Here’s what we’ll do:

  • Daily walks. I’m already walking daily for exercise, but walking for re-focused attention requires a different technique. Rather than power walking, arms swinging briskly, ears plugged and listening to music, these walks must be done without headphones. It’s okay to walk briskly, but focus on the world around you and the sensations in your body, rather than the speed at which you’re walking.

    Pay attention to the sounds of the birds, traffic, and voices; the smell in the air; the feel of your heartbeat as the blood rushes through your body and the feel of the air on your skin. Pay attention to the action around you with curiosity, and keep your thoughts away from problems at work or home. This is not a time for problem solving. Think of it as a mini-vacation from everything but the moment.
  • Mini-breaks throughout the day. For this, I set a reminder for once an hour or every couple of hours. When the reminder alert goes off, I stop, take three deep, slow breaths, tune into my senses and ask, What is happening right now?
  • Brief, time-capsule-style journal entries. This is a technique in which you capture something concrete about each day in 50 words or fewer. It might be something as simple as, “The air smelled like roses today. Moist, rich scent. Reminded me of the ’80s for some reason.” It’s okay to write more, but because we’re only committing to write a few words, it’s easy to accomplish. We won’t tend to procrastinate or skip it altogether.
  • One scene a week. Once a week, we’ll write a scene based on something that happened that week. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic (though dramatic scenes are easier to write about). I write nonfiction, so I try to keep it true to what really occurred, but if you write fiction, why not use a real-life event as the basis for something more imaginative? The thing is to keep your scene based in a moment in time and one place. Include dialogue, if appropriate, and concrete sensory details. Don’t explain, only describe.

Now, all that’s not so hard, right? Daily walks can be 15 minutes (or more), the mini-breaks take about 30 seconds each, time-capsule journal entries take about 1 minute, and your weekly scene around 30 minutes. Total commitment? About 20 minutes a day, plus the once-weekly time for writing a scene.

Will you join me this week? Let’s support each other in paying attention for better description in our writing. Share your experiences or some of your time-capsule entries throughout the week by leaving a comment.


Image by Amber Lea Starfire


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