Engaging the Senses

A teacher-writer heads to the beach to try out one of her own writing prompts

I was well into my second trimester of pregnancy with my sixth—and final—child during a hot Indiana summer. Then, so much of my time was spent trying to overcome the typical pregnancy discomforts, which were exacerbated by my age (mid-thirties, just old enough to be considered of “advanced maternal age”) and the unusually humid weather in my hometown that summer. Uncomfortable was not the word I would use to describe my state at the time; I was in misery, bodily distress! But that did not change the fact that I had writing deadlines—deadlines that did not heed the symptoms of my condition.  

This was especially true for one assignment that summer, a piece about my experience with postpartum depression. I had tried everything in my writer’s arsenal, but nothing was working to help me get words on paper. I couldn’t form more than a sentence before I had to delete and start over. My deadline was only days away, but my page was blank.

I often turn to cleaning as a form of extreme procrastination. It was during a round of decluttering my home office that I came across a writing lesson I had created for my college freshmen: using nature to open the writing realm of description. I had used it a few times over the years to help kick-start classes that seemed constipated when it came to writing details. The plans I found were the originals I had written during my first semester as a writing instructor, a crumpled piece of paper stuck in a pile I was making ready for the shredder. Instead of continuing my office purge, I stopped to read and remember the lesson that seemed to do so much for my students.

The assignment was to find one thing in nature—a pine cone, leaf, blade of grass, feather, etc.—and bring it in to the next class. I remembered going over the findings. There was always a student or two who needed to run out and exchange their item, and some students always forgot to bring anything at all, so I had written the lesson to suggest the instructor might bring in a box of nature—sticks, bark, flowers, seeds, etc. Once everyone had a suitable object, the first assignment was to describe the item in a paragraph.

Students usually stuck to physical characteristics, things they could see. They sometimes needed guidance. This is where I usually told them, “Put the item in your hand. Close your eyes. What do you feel? Write it down. (Yes, you can open your eyes for the writing part.) Next, smell it. What scents do you notice from the item? Write that down. For those brave enough to do so, taste it. Write down the flavors you get.”

Do you see where I was going with this? Having students explore the item with their senses gives them several opportunities for description. Engaging the senses gets the kids to open up about the details. The entire process is like a kind of meditation that opens the writer’s sense awareness like a portal to another realm. All the writer has to do is follow along, pen in hand, gathering up all the rich details that the senses capture as the session goes on.

After this exercise, my students seemed to have no trouble writing detailed descriptions. Although I sometimes did have to perform a bit of additional prodding with the reporting questions (who, what, where, when, and why), the result was still personal stories or essays with a depth of meaning the students never could have obtained before. By opening their senses and stepping into another state of awareness, my freshman writers found they could write about natural things more readily than before. Some even used the technique to help add some depth to their biology research papers during the same term.

This was a great lesson that had helped many of my students. It was also one I had never thought to apply to my own writing. As I sat there in July, covered in dust bunnies and reeking of household cleaner, I wondered whether I had found the answer to my writer’s block. Time to test it out. I just needed some nature.

I packed up my four bored teenagers, plus toys, snacks, and other distractions for my toddler, and drove to the only natural environment my sweating pregnant body could tolerate at the time—a beach on Lake Michigan. I set up close to the lifeguard post, situated the teens, and set up the toddler’s entertainment stronghold before turning part of my attention (not all—I still had to supervise the kiddos in the water) to my work. I had brought my pen and a pad of paper. With both ready for action, I sat and took in my environment.

I opened my senses: I heard the waves crash against the granules of saturated sand as the liquid body moved to and from the shore, the sounds of the waves intermingling with the laughter and screams of children as they tried to wade out to the sandbar and deeper water. I smelled the freshness of the water, with the underlying notes of mud and a fishy aftertaste. I felt the sharp, cold lake water envelop my feet to my ankles. The cool water met my flushed skin with a slightly painful bite of frostiness, which sent a shiver racing up from my ankle, through my spine, and into my brain. I opened my mouth just as the wind picked up and tasted the dusty grit of sand granules mixed with the cool lake breezes wafting the muddy, fishy flavor into my olfactory system. I picked up my pen and wrote all of this down.

I quickly tested the newly arrived muse with the topic of my impending deadline. Suddenly, I was transported back to the days right after I gave birth to my youngest son, the toddler. I felt the razor’s edge of anxiety that seemed to haunt those days, my first experience with postpartum depression. The memories flooded back, tinged in dark grays of depression and sadness, memories I had locked away until now. I saw myself holding the infant I loved so very much, yet crying so hard I shook trying to catch my breath. I smelled the afterbirth, and coppery blood scent seemed to be everywhere but on the skin of my son. I would smell my sweet-scented baby boy for hours as a reprieve. I knew with my brain that my sense of smell had been poisoned by PPD, but my heart told me it was broken because I had failed motherhood already. I heard the voice of my own anxiously depressed consciousness as it constantly replayed horrifying scenarios of my new babe’s demise, with a background track of all the ways I was unfit for motherhood. I tasted the salty tears that fell whenever no one was looking.

The essay basically wrote itself from there. I spent a few hours at the beach with my kids that day. My black skin was so baked that it peeled, and the kids were practically prunes from spending so much time in the water. But when we got home, they were tired out and ready for bed, and my essay was ready for revision.

So much of my writing these days is so personal and so hard to break into. I now regularly go back to nature in order to engage my senses and kick-start the creative process. Often, this means taking a pad and paper to the beach. Other times, a few miles on the bike or a couple of hours chasing kids around the park are all I need to slip into that state of sensory awareness and allow the words to pour forth.

About the Author

Jonita Davis

Jonita Davis is a teacher, mother, and wife living on the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Her work has appeared in the Establishment, Romper, and Redbook.

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