Friday, October 7, 2011

The logic of the senses

Recently on a break from other work, I picked up Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing and by chance turned to this paragraph (and please insert your own pronoun of choice; this book was published a while ago when pronouns were harder to come by, so many writers stuck with just one):

"Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture. If your reader feels the sun on his flesh, the wind fluttering his shirt sleeves half your fight is won. The most improbable tales can be made believable, if your reader, through his senses, feels certain that he stands at the middle of events. He cannot refuse, then, to participate. The logic of events always gives way to the logic of the senses."

I love “The logic of events always gives way to the logic of the senses.” If we feel we are there, we believe it, we accept the story. I will believe I’m eating apple pie, not in someone’s kitchen but on a space ship to Mars if you tell me about the warm juicy apples, and the smell of cinnamon, and the crumbs of crust that can’t be held down because of the weird no-gravity thing in our space ship.

Here’s a quick example from popular literature. My grandson Owen has been reading the Percy Jackson series and wanted to share with me, so I’ve been reading them, too. From the first, The Lightning Thief, here’s the description of Mr. Brunner, Latin teacher : “middle-aged guy in a motorized wheelchair. He had thinning hair and a scruffy beard, and a frayed tweed jacket, which always smelled like coffee.” Well, a few pages later we learn that Mr. Brunner is actually Chiron, half-man, half-horse, trainer of gods. But we already believe in his solidity as a character because we’ve seen his thinning hair and scruffy beard and smelled the coffee of his jacket.

So much of writing is about really noticing--and then getting it down on paper. Hope the noticing and naming are going well where you are.


  1. So true, Jackie. When in doubt, focus on the senses.

  2. Noticing, paying attention then stripping away, via revision, a lot of what we notice so that only the essential, the tip of that iceberg shows. It's the toughest job in the world. And it feels so awesome when we do it well (or at least when we think we do). Thank you for the reminder, Jackie! :0)