Before I left on our recent trip I bought a new spiral notebook for the specific purpose of keeping a trip journal so I’d have the details for writing stories later. I managed to write a few lines about each port of call, but didn’t find the experience satisfying. I finally identified the root of the problem. I was writing about the easy stuff, which was mostly a list of things we saw and the status of the yet-to-be diagnosed minor knee injury I sustained as I was walking down the pier at our first port of call. I was writing “senselessly, leaving out my thoughts and reactions.
My failure to write about these perceptions was based on the fact that even though I’ve made strides in expanding my description skills, it still doesn’t come naturally. Much of the experience of being in these exotic places was pure sensation —rich wall colors, pungent fragrances, odd shapes pr exotic sounds. I also felt joy at seeing old edifices newly renovated and freshly painted, indicating prosperity and progress for formerly oppressed people and gratitude for the opportunity to be there. Joy, gratitude — how do you write about these sensory things?
Some people turn spontaneously to poetry for such expression. I envy people who are able to easily do this. It is not my gift. I’ll stick to narrative writing, but I’ll have to ponder the best way to go about it for awhile, chewing that mental cud I mentioned in my previous post. When I do write of these experiences, it will most likely be in the form of essays, not stories as such. When I do write about these experiences, I’ll draw upon the insights in an earlier post, Transcending the Trite.
Perhaps this is a good time to point out the difference between essays and stories. Stories involve action and/or interaction. Something happens. Stories have a plot. Essays are expressions of thoughts, ideas and insights. They may include a certain amount of action, but plot isn’t a critical element. Essays interject meaning into experiences. Both of these writing forms have a place in lifestory writing.
My conclusion is that for future trips I’ll take a tiny notebook that fits in a pocket where I can record thought fragments of a few words, tossing aside the idea of writing coherent narrative. I’ll also take along the small digital audio recorder I bought a few years ago with the intention of recording relatives telling stories. That hasn’t worked well, but I think it will work well for the purpose of describing smells, colors, and such sensory data.
Have you faced similar challenges when writing about sensory rich experiences from the past or the present? Let’s all give ourselves permission to move beyond senseless writing. Let’s scribble and write some thoughts that aren’t polished prose. Perhaps we’ll never share the result, but we’ll become more versatile writers for the trying. Let me know how it goes for you.
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal