I’ve been writing without vision for more than 25 years. Next month, at Northwestern University’s Summer Writers’ Conference, I’m going to try teaching people who can see how to do it, too:
Smelling is Believing: Using Your Other Senses — Beth Finke
Writer Beth Finke is blind, and her in-class exercises encourage writers to set scenes using senses besides sight. Each writer will leave with a personal essay to fine-tune at home and send for possible publication in journals, on line magazines, blogs, podcasts or magazines. This session is especially appropriate for new writers, but writers of all levels are encouraged to attend.
I’ve never taught this before, and my Monday memoir-writing class generously agreed to serve as guinea pigs for one assignment I’m considering for the workshop: “Write about a summer experience without using your sense of sight to describe it.”
Bill came back with a lively piece describing summer thunderstorms in his home state of Kansas. Other writers read essays about camping adventures, beach vacations, and road trips. Brigitte grew up in Germany. Her essay explained that surviving searing summer temperatures during graduate school in Iowa City left her feeling less foreign. “I escaped into a hamburger joint to avoid collapsing from the heat,” she wrote, finding the frigid American air-conditioning as extreme as the heat and humidity outside. Bringing a sweater along when temperatures were in the 90s seemed absurd, but once she gave in, the heat started to bother her less. “I was becoming an American. I was always protected from the indoor cold by a sweater.”
Anne tackled the assignment by writing two essays about her family’s annual trip to Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. She used her sight in the first piece, then wrote without:
Visual version: Our food and gear loaded into the rented motorboat, Grandpa Frederick was at the wheel. He’d been coming here for years and knew exactly where he was going. Lisa, our oldest, sat next to him so she’d be the first to spot the Devin’s Island dock. The dock extended into a narrow passage between two islands, which took some maneuvering. Bruce jumped out, secured the boat and helped us climb onto the dock. The girls took off, running up the rocky path to the house.
The house was the only structure on the island. The screen porch was lined with cots that did double duty as couches and beds. At one end was the large picnic table where we ate breakfast and supper. (Lunch was on the dock.) The kitchen had a sink with a pump, and a wood-burning stove with two propane-fueled burners. The fridge, also propane-fueled, was an essential for Frederick, who would not tolerate two weeks without ice cubes for his daily libations!
Days were spent swimming, canoeing and fishing. The girls explored the largely wooded island, collecting flora and fauna which we examined on the porch while waiting to view the sunset or an oncoming storm. The limited light from kerosene lanterns in the living room cut short the evening’s reading and games and sent us to our beds.
And here’s Anne’s second one:
Non-visual version: Grandpa Frederick was an old-hand at handling the rented motor boat and knew exactly where he was going. Lisa sat next to him up front where the bounce was the strongest. Jennifer and Mary squealed when water sprayed them in the back seats. The girls had been coming here all their lives, and had confidence about the uneven paths to the house and around the small island. They loved moving through the woods, smelling the pine trees, listening to insect noises and feeling the wind on their faces.
Grandma would go with them to search for wild blueberries. They’d pop a few into their mouths, gently crushing them until they popped and the juice coated their tongues. They’d hopefully find enough to make a pie. Nothing smells or tastes as good as Devin’s Island blueberry pie!
The children’s favorite spot was a small sandy beach near the dock. They liked to wiggle their toes in the fine sand. It was here they learned to swim, aided by blow-up rings. They tolerated the cold water — a life-long acclimation that prepared them for later dips in icy lakes and mountain streams.
The dock was the center of activity. Frederick had a reserved spot for drinking martinis. Dorothy Hunt’s crab salad sandwiches on New England-style hot dog buns (slit along the top) were a ritual. After lunch, we’d sit on the side of the dock and kick up a spray, then spread out a towel and soak up the sun or trek up to the cool shade of the porch for a nap.
There wasn’t much sense of time. Evening came when the temperature dropped, the kerosene lamps gave off their distinctive aroma and June bugs collided with the screens. On colder nights, we’d huddle by a smoky fire in the fireplace, then climb into beds, pull up the covers and have wonderful Technicolor dreams.
“Writing Chicago” runs from August 1 to August 3 this year. Jury still out whether I’ll use this “sightless summer” assignment during my workshop, and your comments to this post would be helpful in making that decision. I’m collecting sample lines and paragraphs from famous writers using senses besides sight in their stories, too, and may use those as handouts. If you have anyrecommendations, by all means please leave them as comments here. Thanks, and seesmell you later!