Monday, May 3, 2010

Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul. - Oscar Wilde

This is one of my very favorite photos from the past six months. It was taken on a gorgeous beach on the west coast of Scotland, and is of people whom I adore. The footprints are ours; we were alone that afternoon. Just us, some sheep, and that amazing landscape.

It's difficult to put visuals to memories. Photos work well because we're lazy - seeing is an easy way to visualize, an entire industry has been built on this desire - but can you really share a moment in time without sharing how it smelled? How the wind felt on your bare skin? How the layered sounds of waves, sea birds, the wind, and the sheep on the hillside combined in your skull? How your stomach churned with hunger and happiness?

Every writing book or workshop worth its salt will mention the mantra of the Five Senses. Plodding visual description is yawn-worthy. Spicing it up means extending description beyond the eyes, and even beyond the senses - how something feels subconsciously, consciously, internally. This ain't easy. Especially when you're making it all up.

That's what we're doing, after all. Lying. Inventing worlds for people who don't exist, then trying to sell them as real people to, well, real people. Drawing on memory can sometimes work, but other times it collapses, a sad little souffle in the Oven of Bad Ideas. I've read a couple of books lately that didn't work for me because the 'real'-ness was too forced, too polished. It felt like a lie. Fiction writers never want anything to feel like a lie.

That moment, in that photo: that was real. You can see that it's real. But the juice of the moment, the other senses - for that, we need words. The delicious challenge of explaining the visual without the aid of the eyes: that's my favorite part of this process.

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