Senses & Dreams

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett

“The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors are distilled from the experience of the senses, and the design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect.” Carson McCullers (Ballad of the Sad Café)

Because we are such a visually driven culture, often our characters are too flat, or dull. One way that you can enliven a piece is to add more sensory details, while avoiding clichés. We don’t want to describe a broken heart by simply saying he had an affair. How is she experiencing the pain? One way that helps me, once I have a first draft complete, is to draw a sensory map. Trace your hand on a page- place inside each of the five fingers, a sense: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Begin to fill in what you already have from your draft. Typically it will not be much, and this is where the map is helpful! Also, in hybrid work, this is where you can employ poetic devices like alliteration, assonance or metaphor. Remember to be concise, and to avoid flowery descriptions. Recently, one of my poetry teachers and buddies, Padraig, touched on simile, the poetry device. Here, I quote his references:

Fill in the gap: His eyes were as green as the hills in ______. Her intellect was as sharp as a ______. Their response left me feeling as high as a ______. Putting things alongside each other. To say this is like that.

However, a simile also needs to recognize its limit. When you say something is like something, you’re also saying it’s not totally like it either. Simile isn’t saying that two things are identical or interchangeable, it’s just making a temporary comparison. So a thing always comes with its un-thing. To say something is like something is also to name that it’s unlike it at the same time. 

I also believe this is especially true when we are referring to sensory details. No one wants to read a story in which two lovers ride off into the sunset. BLECH!!! Or recently, while watching the Medici family series (highly fictionalized for the contemporary viewer), in season two (circa 1475ish?) there is a literal “Juliet Capulet” desiring “Romeo Montague.”

Just remember, we talk in “real life” cliches, And that’s boring (mostly to a writer! But okay) but our characters do not, and ought not to! Often, we might respond instinctively to simile- as an example, those three fill in the blanks above:

His eyes were as green as the hills in Tuscany.. Her intellect was as sharp as a knife.. Their response left me feeling as high as a kite.’

Not bad, but predictable? Yes! And so, if we had surprises, in terms of these responses, such as:

His eyes were as green as the hills in Kauai.. Her intellect was as sharp as a lance. Their response left me feeling as high as a child on a high wire.’

Two other quick notes about senses: you can use inner voice (monologue) to reveal contrary feelings to a current situation or dialogue.

Also, actions speak louder than words- true, a cliché, perhaps. But this adage does come through in terms of revealing characters strengths/ weaknesses. For instance, I’d rather see a character fling a full bowl of just overcooked pasta against a kitchen wall, then be told, ‘he was unhappy because his wife overcooked the pasta again.”

Michael Montlack’s Can The Heart Take a Disco Nap? At Heron Barks:

‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.’                    William Shakespeare, “The Tempest”

Did you have any recurring childhood dreams? If so, jot them down. A line or two suffices. Maybe you’ve achieved them? Or are close? Perhaps your dream is being a mom or dad? Maybe it’s sobriety? Perhaps you could fly? Maybe like me, you wanted to live “close to the edge?” To live the life of an artist.

     But then, one has to LIVE. Discover who he/she is. Make mistakes.

“Sweet dreams are made of this,
Who am I to disagree?
I travel the world and the seven seas,
Everybody’s looking for something…”        


And so, through various jobs, and loves, and losses, and writing. Cities. Countries. Houses. A bit of repetition of my past, and upbringing. And all the while dreaming… dreaming….

Was there a childhood dream that scared you? Possibly a repetitive one. I had more than one. I’ll share two- in the first one, I am hiding, sliding among the coniferous trees in a glen of the Adirondack Mountains above Round Pond Stream. It’s a familiar place, as our family vacationed there numerous times when I was a kid. In an aluminum boat (yes, our family had one) on the stream, a man whose face I never saw was carrying a rifle. The sun glinted off the barrel, pointing toward the woods. Pointing toward me. These details are all I can recall. Slithering among trees to save my life, terrified.

In recurring dream number two, I am six. The Indians all lined up on a ridge just down the road, across the street. They whooped their way (just like those movies) toward our house, setting it on fire and killing my entire family. Sometimes I’d save a sister. One warrior would scoop me up on their horse, and just as in the movie “Dances With Wolves,” I am raised as an indigenous person, as part of the tribe.

Ranker is a website I refer to often, and it ranks random lists. In this case, “22 People Describe Terrifying Nightmares That Still Keep Them Up At Night.”

Any of these seem familiar? Or open up some memories from your childhood or past? Jot down a memory, a dream of yours that might have repeated? Scary? Perhaps a day dream, even a current one, that repeats? Might seem threatening? Haunts you?

“Now here you go again, you say
You want your freedom
Well who am I to keep you down
It’s only right that you should
Play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost, and what you had, and what you lost…”

Dreams, Fleetwood Mac

Rick Moody on Antonin Artaud at The Believer.

Piece #2: ‘Up here Bernard, Neville, Jinny and Susan (but not Rhoda) skim the flower-beds with their nets. They skim the butterflies from the nodding tops of the flowers. They brush the surface of the world. Their nets are full of fluttering wings. “Louis! Louis! Louis!” they shout. But they cannot see me. I am on the other side of the hedge. There are only little eye-holes among the leaves. Oh Lord, let them pass. Lord, let them lay their butterflies on a pocket- handkerchief on the gravel. Let them count out their tortoise- shells, their red admirals and cabbage whites. But let me be unseen. I am green as a yew tree in the shade of the hedge. My hair is made of leaves. I am rooted to the middle of the earth. My body is a stalk. I press the stalk. A drop oozes from the hole at the mouth and slowly, thickly, grows larger and larger. Now something pink passes the eyehole. Now an eye-beam is slid through the chink. Its beam strikes me. I am a boy in a grey flannel suit. She has found me. I am struck on the nape of the neck. She has kissed me. All is shattered.’

—Virginia Woolf, excerpt from The Waves

And one more example, a fascinating, contemporary piece:

On Her Having Arrived                  

He thickets in. He thickens.     The AA
meeting ran late: he brandished a BB
gun and the cops were called. Shot ten CC’s
of something slowing in him.     Type AB
blood, type A personality, B.A.
in French: this only goes one way (AB).

Once, on their way to Galt, CA:
snared, small palms. He fiddled with the A/C
and the radio. Said in 5 BC
the A/C was better. Missed his CB
radio.     He swerved. Blew a BAC
near .3. Reciting the ABCs
backwards, trying to find his AAA
papers: failures. “MAKE SURE YOU CALL A CAB
NEXT TIME,” yelled the sheriff.
                                                  The BBC
showed him to her, mug/bloodshot.     CCC
poster-child failure     blamed the BBB.
Now it’s worldwide     now watch: the CBC
posted contact numbers to ACA
counselors for ‘depression’.     CAA
clients argued for the movie rights.
for attrition     for attraction. And be
the only one inside to ever see
the lonely one’s insides.     And to watch a
man die, and die to a thought, shaking bee
-like to the wash and cusps of a held sea.

Hannah Sanghee Park, Kenyon Review Online, 2011

And so, as writers we already know tradition, what is expected of us. We’ve been taught what “rules” are, how to translate them personally. And we can experiment, try something entirely new, fail. Remember the first time you rode a bike? A giraffe? Carved initials into a tree? Donned skies as a cape? Crampons? Made love? Lied?

“There’s no original ideas; it’s just the ideas that you caught. The thing is to be true to the idea.” — David Lynch