By Shannon Magrane
Sensory imagery, by definition, is an element of writing in which the five senses (sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell) are described in order to make your readers feel what your characters are experiencing. By evoking a sensory reaction, the writer enables the reader to be part of the characters’ physical experience. It has long been said that bad characters cannot carry a good plot, but good characters can carry a bad plot, so it is essential that the reader be connected to the characters above all. As such, the writer must make it as easy as possible for the reader to empathize with them. If the writer successfully achieves that, then they tie the reader’s emotions to those of the characters, and invest their audience completely in their story from beginning to end.
I understood this concept only on a basic level when I first started writing fiction seriously, much the same way you understand a recipe from reading and memorizing it, but not actually seeing or cooking the dish. It did not fully hit me how effective it could be in practice until reading “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” a 1967 short story by Harlan Ellison. In Ellison’s tale of a nightmarish future, one of only five humans left alive on Earth tells the story of how they spend the rest of their lives imprisoned, immortal, and tortured by the supercomputer that ended the world in the first place. This computer’s name is AM. He can think. He can reason. And he can feel…but the only thing left for him to think and reason and feel is how much he hates humanity.
This was the story that fully opened my eyes to the true potential of sensory imagery to reach inside the reader and fill them to the brim with emotion. Note your reaction to lines like, “AM said it with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball,” or, “The pain shivered through my flesh like tinfoil on a tooth.” The latter set my teeth on edge and made me taste metal. I was horrified, I was afraid, I was in the shadow of pain, but at the same time, I was amazed, fascinated, downright inspired.
Ellison’s use of language and intimate sensory imagery made me feel as though I were experiencing every pain the characters endured, an experience that no other writer had managed to evoke until that point. I sought to explore more of this skill, of how to make the words flow so fluidly and so vividly, digging deep as I could into the depths of what a person can feel. Such brilliant details can make another world or an alternate reality entirely tangible to the reader, no matter how wild or unfamiliar it is. It is these evocative details that a reader can recognize through the sensations of their own body, thereby becoming fully immersed in the people and in the world that the author has created. For an author who wants to create this re-familarizing effect in his or her audience, such details are essential to include.
Sensory imagery, of course, can and should be used to conjure other emotions besides fear. Though it feels like common knowledge, all five senses must be considered to get the full range of the sensation you are trying to convey. Think: do you have a headache, or is a jackhammer relentlessly pounding at the crevices of your brain? Are you happy, or did a fierce electric current just shoot through your veins? Are you disgusted by something, or does your skin crawl as though you’ve been dunked headfirst into cold bile? Which set of words makes your body react as you read? Which can you connect more to? And, quite simply, which sounds more interesting?
A writer should look into their own memories, their own experiences, to project onto their characters and narration. But when you do, focus less on the emotion that is being felt and focus more on what is going through the body as it is happening: over the skin, piercing the eardrum, holding the organs and muscles inside. All the little details of what you feel are valuable, and can deeply enrich a story. Above all, as a writer, you must show, not tell, and use of sensory imagery is an incredibly effective way to do that.
Image: SugaryAshes. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Drawing. DeviantArt. https://www.deviantart.com/sugaryashes/art/I-Have-No-Mouth-And-I-Must-Scream-439695641
By Mitchell Angelo
Tarfia Faizullah is a Bengali-American award-winning poet. Her second collection of poetry, Registers of Illuminated Villages, examines violence: both personal and societal. She utilizes the confessional style to present the reader with real life challenges she has faced. Faizullah blends the philosophical with the tangible. Her work makes the reader ask questions about the nature of humanity, and what it means to be good.
Faizullah discusses living as a person of color in The United States, specifically in “Self Portrait As A Mango.” In it, the collection’s first expletive appears, and its place is well earned. With the opening stanza, “Your English is great! How long have you been in our country? / I say, Suck on a mango, bitch, since that’s all you think I eat anyway,” Faizullah takes down ignorant white people. This sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is similarly straightforward and dialogue-heavy. Throughout it, the speaker’s self-comparison to a mango acts as a metaphor for objectification—as a possible reference to ignorant people who compare non-white people to inanimate objects. In expanding on this comparison, Faizullah holds nothing back. She makes sure the reader clearly understands what she is articulating. The result is a poem of fury.
Toward the end of “Self-Portrait as a Mango,” the speaker examines self-worth as a person of color, finally concluding: “This mango isn’t alien just because of its gold-green bloodline. I know I’m worth waiting for.” This line marks her refusal to give in to the self-hate she has been taught by white society. It is a proclamation of self-love— a moment of strength against the violence “Registers of Illuminated Villages” expands upon.
In addition to conveying fury and defiance, Faizullah calls for her audience to learn and relearn loss. “To The Bangladeshi Cab Driver In San Francisco” is an example of this. Here, a sorrowful narrative unfolds as Faizullah recalls hearing a cab driver speak the language she learned as a child. She writes, “I could open my mouth to you in the register I know we know, but don’t, or won’t.”
Reading this poem—especially this line—as a person of color, my heart broke. I saw the speaker’s decision to stay silent as evidence that she is not ready to relive negative experiences she has had within her culture. I, along with plenty of Faizullah’s other readers, have had the exact same experience. My culture feels like both a celebration and a weight to bear, especially having grown up in a predominantly white neighborhood. And at times, I too have opted for silence. In “To the Bangladeshi Cab Driver in San Francisco,” Faizullah puts this silence into words. Though heartbreaking, the poem was so important for me to read. It resonated with me not just on a cultural level, but on a deeply personal level as well.
Loss of the language of one’s childhood is one of several types of loss that Faizullah makes known to her readers. For instance, “Registers of Eliminated Villages,” the collection’s almost-namesake, is a breathtaking piece about loss of innocence, about children struggling to find a safe, warm space to exist in an area ravaged by war. With the lines, “A mother turns to a father / in the cold room they share, / offers her hands to his spine. / I curl inside her, a silver bangle / illuminated by candle’s / flame,” Faizullah examines the beginning of life amidst living beings already struggling to survive. These instances of experiential dichotomy appear over and over throughout the collection, giving Registers of Illuminated Villages the strength and power it needs to become a vital piece in poetry.
As a Theatre and Performance Major, I’m often asked to consider my character’s wants when playing a role. “What is my motivation?” is a question that actors pose so often that it’s parodied. But as it turns out, there’s something to this question. Actors use it to better inhabit their characters. If I can take anything away from my training as an actor, whether from the physical or method/emotional practices, it is that to create a real character, you have to find their desire.
I discovered quickly that this is not just a concept valuable in acting, but also in writing. The actress and theatre practitioner, Uta Hagen, came up with the “Six Steps,” a very technical approach to dissecting theatrical roles. Her strategy asks you, the actor, to answer six “in character” questions: 1) Who am I? 2) What are the circumstances? 3) What are my relationships? 4) What do I want? 5) What is standing in my way? 6) How will I get what I want?
In typical practice, actors will physically write down the answers to these six questions. In doing so, they uncover distinctive behaviors and quirks that contribute to their understanding of the character. This deepened understanding can greatly inform acting decisions, affecting everything from bodily movements to line delivery. This is because with each of the six steps, the actor takes a step deeper into the character’s mind.
I soon realized that this line of inquiry could help me better write my own fictional characters. Though designed for actors, Hagen’s questions are clearly applicable to fiction. In almost every novel, a dynamic character’s desire for something difficult to obtain catalyzes their journey, while the obstacles they face along the way drive the plot.
Given these similarities, why not apply this acting strategy to the writing of your own characters? You’ll hopefully find that this six-step formula will force you to explore your character’s desires. After all, a character will always want something, and whether you are becoming a character or creating one, it is important to figure out what that “something” is.
Another character concept related to desire is the idea of “bits.” This idea, which I also learned about in acting class, deals with the pacing of a scene in relation to the character’s wants. When using this strategy, the actors mark up their scripts with all the places their characters want change. Consequently, they can pinpoint the exact lines where tonal shifts should take place. This is not as easily done in a novel or short story. That being said, by practicing “bits,” actors may develop a better feel for the rhythm of dialogue, and of language in general. This knowledge, of which words or phrases to emphasize and which to handle softly, directly translates to the writing process, to pacing in particular. As a writer and an actor, I can safely say that pacing is as important to writing fiction as it is to performing on stage.
It’s so important to recognize how much different forms of art can inform one another. It’s one of the most valuable things I’ve learned as a double major. When using theatrical practices in fiction writing, I’ve found my characters gaining a new life.
By Mina Guadalupe
Whether they are making maps or building combats, millions of people around the world have used Dungeons and Dragons as a creative outlet. With time, the fantasy role-playing game only seems to be getting more popular. As a D&D fan myself, I find that the skills I develop—both as a player and a Dungeon Master—are advantageous outside of the game, especially in creative writing. With the resurgence of Dungeons and Dragons players, many writers are beginning to notice the literary benefits of playing.
For one, Dungeons and Dragons is all about world building. Whether you’re getting lost in another person’s world or building your own for your players, every moment during a session is a learning experience. You quickly learn what’s working and what isn’t. As a player, you can learn from other more experienced people how to create an engaging environment. And as a Dungeon Master, your players will be quick to tell you what’s entertaining about your world and what’s not. Every game is a workshop on writing an immersive story.
While a sense of place is important, the real story comes through the characters who inhabit it. Characterization can make or break a story. A thing to remember as a Dungeon Master is that your players need to care about your Non Playable Characters (NPCs). Having this challenge helps you develop more memorable characters. Some of them might even make their way into your written stories.
As a player, you also acquire skills related to character development. Though you don’t create NPCs the way a Dungeon Master does, you do over time gain an understanding your own character’s psyche and personality. This ability—to understand characters on a psychological level— is just as important in writing as it is in gameplay. Every moment that you spend being a character, you’re learning how to weave a person into this world you’re a part of. The more experience you gain, the easier you’ll find it to make characters for your own stories.
So now that you’ve got your characters and setting, there’s only one thing left to do: Improve. Ray Bradbury once said, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” And regardless of whether you’re writing a novel or a Dungeons and Dragons story plot (called a campaign), the story will never end up where you want it to. Dungeons and Dragons players are notorious for doing the exact opposite of what you want them to do. Either you’re the one being frustrated or doing the frustrating, and it always gives you the opportunity to learn to improvise. The more you play, the more you learn to come up with creative ways into and out of situations. Creativity is like a muscle and improvising helps you stretch it. Dungeons and Dragons gives you a workshop area to not only have fun playing with others, but to test all of your ideas with a bunch of people who want nothing more than for you to succeed.
Sometimes the idea works; sometimes it doesn’t, and you have to roll a new character. But either way, you’re learning and gaining experience to add to your own stories. So whether you’re writing a campaign or playing one, joining the Dungeon and Dragons craze can help you become a better writer by showing you exactly what makes a good story.
An Interview by Carly Sorenson
Paloma Gratereaux is a junior double-major at SUNY Purchase and recent founder of the African American Women Writers Book Club. The club meets biweekly on Mondays at 6:30 p.m. in the Multicultural Center. Shortly after the club’s first meeting, the two of us sat down for a conversation about representation, reading for leisure, and Zora Neale Hurston’s long-lost nonfiction novel, Barracoon.
Carly Sorenson: What inspired you to start the book club?
Paloma Gratereaux: I’m a playwriting major but I declared as a literature major at the end of last semester. My teacher, Aviva, told me to go to a meeting for lit majors to make sure they’re on track to graduate where this one girl asked the professors what they were going to do in the classes they teach to promote diversity, and specifically to promote black women writers. The teachers did give her an answer, but it was vague. They were aware that diversity in the curriculum is a problem, but I guess it’s difficult to tackle.
So then I turned around to the girl and I was like, You should start a book club. Those were my words to her. And she’s like, I would, but I’m graduating. And in my head I was like, That sucks, but it shouldn’t stop there.
So I told Aviva and she directed me to Daisy in the Multicultural Center, and then Daisy did everything. I gave her a book list and she got it off its feet. She’s amazing at what she does. Without her, I doubt the book club would have worked. It would just be an idea.
CS: What was the process of starting a book club like?
PG: Daisy asked me if it would be weekly or biweekly, and if I wanted internship credit. I could have done that, but I didn’t have the extra time to commit to journaling and all that. I was more than happy to just do it, to provide the space as a volunteer. That was always my intention.
I publicized with flyers, and I posted about the club on the open forum. I made the flyers myself! They’re not that good, but I’m proud.
CS: What books do you plan on reading at the club?
PG: Right now we’re reading Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ by Zora Neale Hurston, and let me tell you about that. It’s a really cool book. It was written 90 years ago but it was just published last April by Deborah Plant. She’s really into Zora Neale Hurston, that’s her specialty. So basically, 90 years ago Zora interviewed this man, Cudjo Lewis, who was the last survivor of the slave ship Clotilda. She interviewed him about his life back home and the process of being taken away on a ship, and serving someone else, and having all that stripped away from him. Cudjo Lewis wanted to save up money to go back to Africa but he couldn’t gather the funds. Instead, he started a community in Alabama called Africa Town, which is still there. They have their own language and everything. So the book is about his legacy and her interviews with him.
Deborah Plant found and edited the book. She’s coming here to Purchase to give a talk, so hopefully we’ll have the book finished in time for that.
The other books that we might read include The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tarbaby, and Love by Toni Morrison, then Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo, Betsy Brown, and Liliane by Ntozake Shange, who also wrote For Colored Girls. Just really classic titles by Black American women. I haven’t read any of them, but I feel like they’re must-reads.
CS: Sounds like a great reading list. How did you choose these particular books?
PG: Well, I knew all these names from somewhere, but I never had the chance to read them before. I wondered why that was, and I realized it was because I had no incentive. So I feel like this book club will be good for people like me, or people who have a passion for these writers. Also, I picked books that were under 250 pages, because we all have lives. I’m not going to assign a huge book.
CS: What role do you think a book club should play in the literary world? Or more specifically, what role should this book club play on campus?
PG: Oh, wow. I want it to be a safe space where we can read these books comfortably. I feel like a club is different from a class setting because it’s cozier. The Multicultural Center is super cozy, and I bring snacks and stuff. I want it to be a super chill place where if you feel some type of way, you can communicate that.
I had six girls show up to the first meeting, all black female students, and the conversations we had moved me. I told them that there are so many things I cannot relate to because I’m not a black woman in this country, so I don’t see myself as a leader in this club. I just see myself as part of it. I told them that they would be guiding the conversation, and I would provide the snacks and the books. This is for them. They deserved a place, and someone had to provide it.
Beyond that, books have so much depth to them, but how much are you really connecting to the text if your grade is on the line? I feel like books should be for leisure. In classroom settings, the stakes are too high. You look at a book and you’re like, Ugh, that’s for class. Why can’t we just have books to read? Why can’t we relearn that books are leisure? It’s a privilege, not a burden.
By Nick Sapienza
I was always a shy kid. Whether it was talking to people or sending a text message, my social anxiety made me fear even the shortest interactions. During my grade school years, I felt immense pressure to be social and make friends, which left me feeling increasingly paranoid. In times of anxiety, I would submerge myself within a book. If people saw me reading, they would disengage and leave me to read. It was when I had books that I could cope with my social anxiety. Stephen King once said, “We make up horrors to help cope with real ones,” and I believe strongly in this idea because that’s what influenced me to begin writing. Weirdly enough, reading Stephen King’s fiction helped me cope with my own anxiety.
I was twelve years old and traveling with my family in Italy when I first read Misery. I didn’t have a smart phone and the hotel only had five TV channels, so I would read when I wasn’t exploring Rome. I can still vividly remember scenes such as when Paul’s typewriter begins talking to him, as well as Annie’s declaration to Paul that she will hold him hostage until he writes a sequel to his latest series. These scenes gave me chills. They were so well-written that they came to life in my imagination and have lived there ever since.
Reading King’s work inspired me to write. As a nerdy nervous kid, I attended writing workshops in Brooklyn where I grew up. I never left the house without my journal, a pen, and a copy of Carrie. If I needed inspiration, I would open up to a random page and read a paragraph. I could relate to Carrie’s story because she was the target of vicious bullying and was so alone. Loneliness is something that writing can conquer. Creating my characters and building a new world occupied my mind and imagination. Writing feels like a conversation between myself and the page. Stephen King believes you must write and read every day to perfect your craft. For the first time in my life, I was inspired to be disciplined. That was big!
Crippled by anxiety as a child, I chose to think of Stephen King as my own personal mentor. The first time I read his memoir, On Writing, I learned that even he struggles with his self-confidence: He threw his first story in the trash bin, and it was his wife who convinced to publish it. Even in On Writing he stated, “Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to makes speeches. Just believing is usually enough.” His words resonated with me and ultimately encouraged me to believe in myself.
Living all these different lives through my writing miraculously gave me the confidence to be outgoing. I found a way to channel my fears into something productive. All of my anxieties and shyness became useful for my writing as I was able to recreate my daily challenges on the page. There is no better way to open your mind to all the possibilities that life has to offer.
By Christina Baulch
As a Literature major, I’m surrounded by creative writing all the time. Whether I’m studying Medieval English Literature or Sci-Fi, I’ve dedicated my four years at Purchase to analyzing and appreciating creative writing of all mediums, genres, and time periods. Yet, with all this reading in my course schedule, I’ve found it hard to dedicate time and motivation to doing my own creative writing.
However, this all changed when I enrolled in Introduction to Creative Writing. In class, I was in a room full of creative writers- and I was finally one of them. Every couple of weeks, we herded the desks into a circle and workshopped one another’s work. Even though the comments were sometimes comically spare (a poem of mine once received the comment “nice words” hurriedly scrawled across the top margin) every comment from our class meant the world to me and kept me going.
Since that introductory course, I’ve found friends both inside and outside the Creative Writing program who, like me, simply enjoy writing and sharing it with others. If you have yet to find a community of writers for yourself at Purchase outside of creative writing classes, here are some ways to go about it:
1- Join Clubs
There is a wide variety of clubs on our campus, and several of them relate to writing. The first and most obvious choice is The Writers Club, which meets Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. in Humanities 2059. Though the club is associated with the Creative Writing major, it is open to all students. Bring paper and pen or a laptop, and have fun writing with other students on campus!
Likewise, the Literature Society meets Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. in Humanities 2031 and is open to Literature and non-Literature majors alike. In addition to lively discussions and debates about literature as a whole, the club also hosts events. One recent example was a “DIY Sparknotes” night in the Stood, where participants re-imagined existing stories into new genres.
2- Form Your Own Groups
As an ex-commuter, I’m highly aware of how difficult it can be to attend clubs if you live off campus. If this is the case, consider forming your own group. A group can even be as informal as you and a group of friends writing on the Great Lawn or in the library.
One of my personal favorite group writing exercises is OuLiPo (read: ooh-lip-po), a French acronym that stands for “workshop of potential literature.” Though there are infinite variations for how you can structure your OuLiPo session, one basic option is to sit with a group and a variety of texts. You set a rule of how many words per page can be taken- say, two- and then each person opens a book and selects words they like. You write your words down in a notebook, then pass it to the person on your right. If you each start with a notebook, you’ll end up with several poems at the end of your session. Some of our OuLiPo creations have been serious attempts while others have taken surprising, comical turns. The main point here is enjoying the writing process and working collaboratively.
3- Finally, When All In Person Attempts Fail: Try the Internet!
There are innumerable Facebook groups and Subreddits dedicated to writing and writing prompts, but one Facebook group close to the heart of Purchase is The Wordsmith’s Guild. This group was started by a Purchase student, and its 106 members and counting include Purchase students and alum, as well as writers from outside the area. It’s a great space to bounce ideas off one another, participate in writing sprints, and connect with other writers both inside and outside the college.
I wish you the best of luck in your journey to connect with other writers on and off campus!
7:30 PM. Whitson’s at The Stood. Come share your original work and support your friends!