During my senior year of high school, having just returned from Thanksgiving break, I sat in the cafeteria with my classmates. Our laughter rattled throughout the room and echoed down the empty hallways. My best friend’s mother ran into the cafeteria shouting my name. Confused, I got up and approached her. From the expression on her face, I could see that something was wrong. “You need to come with me, now,” she said. The laughter grew fainter as we walked down the hall, out of the school, toward her car.
I repeatedly asked what was happening, only to be ignored. She sped across town. As we turned down my street, I saw the towering beam of black smoke. Sirens from the ambulance wailed across the street. Inside, my mother was receiving oxygen from a paramedic. My brother, wearing only a diaper, was being held by my great-grandmother, who lived next door to us. The craning arm of a bulldozer buzzed as it tore down the wall to my bedroom, while volunteers on the fire engine sprayed against the flames.
It’s been seven years since a faulty electrical outlet in my room became overloaded and caught my home on fire. I’ve tried for years to write about this experience, about the guilt I felt because of the fire’s origin, and I still struggle to do so. In every attempt I find myself only focusing on what I remember seeing that day and, although that is an important aspect, the writing goes nowhere.
To properly capture this day, I must engage with more than just what I saw. I need to show all the sensations. The smell of the burning wood, the sizzle of water hitting the flames, the way the burnt ash felt against my fingers as I sifted through what remained of my room—these are all crucial sensory details needed to fully encapsulate the events.
Of the five senses, sight is the most utilized in writing, especially by young writers, who tend to rely on what’s easiest. However, the best descriptive writing appeals to most, if not all, of the five senses. Getting students to engage in the other senses can only benefit their writing. Other senses create new, vivid perspectives through which readers can be immersed.
This low-stakes exercise works to steer students, particularly beginners, to look beyond the surface and resist two-dimensional visual imagery. At first, it might be unfamiliar, or even uncomfortable, for students to lean into this way of thinking, but doing so will lead them into a new and exciting territory. This in-class creative freewrite focuses on the development of setting without identifying any visual elements.
- Give students a few minutes to think about a significant memory they have of a specific place.
- For five minutes, have the students write about the memory: what happened, who was there, why it’s important, and so on. This step should be done from the first-person point of view.
- Have the students continue with their freewrite, now focusing solely on the setting. Ask them to describe the setting using only one of the remaining senses—smell, sound, touch, or taste—while excluding sight. This step can last five to ten minutes.
- Now, discuss the exercise with the students. You might ask how it felt engaging with only one sense. Did they have to reach deeper, pull up more surprising and unusual details and language? Do they feel that the exercise resulted in more exciting description?
- Last, ask a few students to volunteer to share. After each student has read their piece, move back into discussion. This time, focus on how the attention to alternative senses immerses. How might the scene have been different had it been foregrounded with a different sense?
Example of the Exercise
This example is from when I conducted this exercise with fellow graduate students, but this exercise works well for students of all levels.
Tyler convinced me to go. We wanted to wear all-black clothing but didn’t have any solid black shirts, so we turned our graphic tees inside out so they couldn’t identify us by their logos. We put on Halloween masks and filled an Under Armour bag with two cans of spray paint, a lighter, and a gallon-sized bag of David sunflower seeds. Neither of us could drive yet, and in case we had to take off through the woods to escape, we left our bikes, snuck out of Tyler’s parents’ house on foot, and set off toward the school.
We’d scoped it out the weekend before, even climbed on top of the roof, and we found a door that was only locked by a chain. There was enough space between the door and the frame that we could squeeze our adolescent bodies through, into the gym.
The smell of leather, musty sneakers, and cheap concession food gave way to deodorant, and its lack. We sweated, making quick work to tag as much as we could. Then deodorant gave way to paint. The smell coated our nostrils. We could even taste it through the masks. But then, as we held the lighter up to the sprinkler head, everything was lost over to mercury or some other metal. It was as though the water had been in the pipes too long, waiting to get out.
Dakota Chisum is a second-year MA student at Texas Tech University studying English with a concentration in creative writing. He is from the small West Texas town of Jayton and holds a BA in mathematics from Texas Tech.