I plan on starting the “Smelling is Believing” workshop I’m leading at Northwestern University’s Summer Writers’ Conference tomorrow sharing accounts of magazine and newspaper editors I’ve worked with who have doubted that a person who is blind could write a good story. You know, like the editor who asked me to write about Miss America, but then wondered out loud if a blind person could interview a beauty queen.
One handout I’ll pass out at the workshop has excerpts from books I’ve read the past couple months. Each excerpt is an example of an author setting up a scene without using their sense of vision to describe it. Here are a few examples, and please forgive any spacing or spelling errors — I transcribed these from the audio versions I listened to, and in some cases I had to make guesses:
- From Canada by Richard Ford: “At the end of these evenings, it was before eight o’clock, when Charlie would pass through, having checked the goose pits, and was telling the sports to go to bed since they’d be rising at four. I’d climb the stairs back to my room and listen to the hunters climb up to their rooms, laughing and coughing and honking and clingingclinking their glasses and bottles and using the bathroom and making their private noises and yawning, and boots hitting the floor until their doors closed and they’d be snoring. It was then I could hear single men’s voices out on the cold main street of fort Royale, and car doors closing, and a dog barking, and switches working the grain cars behind the hotel, and the air brakes of trucks pausing at the traffic light, then their big engines grinding back to life and heading toward Alberta or Regina, two places I knew nothing about.”
- From The Humanity Project by Jean Thompson (this is a description of Mrs. Foster, a new widow): “First there had been Mr. Foster, all dead and tragic. Kristy heard the story a number of times, because it was Mrs. Foster’s heart’s sorrow, the story she’d been left to tell, how she screamed in disbelief when she’d come home and found him, had fallen insensible on the floor, awakening in the dark next to the dead man, how she had touched his knees, and then his old face, speaking to him in an ordinary way about things she had done that day. It wasn’t the kind of conversation he had ever taken much of an interest in, and so she was used to talking to herself. There was only a little bit of normal space before she had to get up, make phone calls, and get on with the business of death.”
- From Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: “I went to my room and put some water on my hair, but you can’t really comb a crew cut or anything. Then I tested to see if my breath stank from so many cigarettes and the scotch & sodas I drank at Ernie’s. All you do is hold your hand under your mouth and blow your breath up toward the old nostrils. It didn’t seem to stink much, but I brushed my teeth anyway.”
- From White Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse: “He left the door open to the night air, to let the heat of the day out. The polished concrete floor at the entryway was cool on his bare feet. Through the darkness, he felt his way toward the bedroom with his hands and bumped into a wall. When he stopped, he still heard that low, deep hum. He lay in the small bedroom with his eyes opened and imagined the thousands and millions of people on earth who would never be alone the way he was alone tonight. Every sound he heard was large: the wings of a moth, the donkey boiler outside groaning as the water inside its tank cooled, the creak of the floor in the living room. The room where he slept was the same size as the house he’d once shared with his mother and five brothers and sisters. In this house, there were still six more rooms, some of them much larger than this one. A small village could live here.”
- From The Wife by Meg Wolitzer: “Then Dinner was placed in front of us, and we ate that, and drank wine, too, and we settled back into our seats for the ride. Hours passed, and eventually we reached the time in any trans-Atlantic flight when travelers fall into a kind of shallow sleep, eyes skittering beneath their lids. No dreams penetrate the endlessly rebreathed air above everyone’s lowered or thrown-back head.”
- From The Round House by Louise Ehrdrich: “I fell asleep on a plastic couch and someone put a blanket over me. I sweated in my sleep, and when I woke, my cheek and arm were stuck to the plastic. I peeled myself unpleasantly up on one elbow. Dr. Eggy was across the room tending to Clements. I could tell right away that things were better, that my mother was better and that whatever had happened with the surgery was better. And in spite of how bad things were, at least for now, the picture wasn’t getting any worse. So I put my face down on the sticky green plastic, which now felt good, and I fell back asleep.”
- From When I Left Home by Buddy Guy: “I’ll spend the rest of the day in the kitchen. Maybe I’ll cook up a gumbo with fresh crayfish. When I was a boy, crayfish tail was bait. Now, it’s a delicacy! The rice, the spice, the greens, the beans. When I gets to cookin’, when the pots gets to boiling, and the odors go flowing all over the house, my mind rests easy. My mind is mighty happy. My mind goes back to my uncle, who made his money on the Mississippi River down in Louisiana where we was raised. My uncle caught the catfish and brought it home to Mama. That fish was so clean and fresh, we didn’t need to skin it. Mama would just wash it with hot water before frying it up. I can still hear the sound of the sizzle, and when I bit into that crispy cracklin’ skin, and tasted the pure white of the sweet fish meat, I was one happy little boy. That’s the kind of food I’m lookin’ for. I’m looking’ today, and I’m looking’ tomorrow, and I’ll be lookin’ for the rest of my life.”
It’d be silly for me to suggest that writers should do away with visual descriptions altogether, but hey, smell, touch, sound and taste sure can bring you to a place, can’t they?