Tonight in our meeting of the Writer’s Workshop, one of our group members wanted to ask another member what was behind the fresh writing that had just been read. The sample was a detailed piece, full of visuals that were already rich on the page. Reading it aloud made it even more alive — but then, that’s what our process can do for brand-new writing.

It also makes for questions in the listener’s mind. How did you do that? That’s the question most often asked, in one form or another, by a writer who wants to polish their craft through practice. In this case, our group member knew the writer had visited a place similar to the one described in the writing. Did the visit influence the writing?

“Can I answer that?” As a rule we don’t invite these kinds of questions, because they connect the writer so directly to what’s written that it makes it harder to treat it as fiction. The passage was clearly fiction, so the question didn’t pose much risk. We’re all about safety, so we can write about painful stuff with courage.

The answer to the question may have passed between these two members at our Brownie Break. But my general answer to any question like this is: Everything is influenced by what we see and experience, either first-hand or told in story. The first-hand experience, however, provides a mammoth charge to the writing: sensuality.

By sensuality I’m not talking about erotic writing, or stories with sex. I mean sensations, like how something tastes, feels to the touch, looks or sounds. These are the details that draw in a reader to the world of your story, no matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction. A life of a novelist, I heard over the weekend at the AWP conference, should be a sensual experience. A writer brings those sensations into the work, selecting those that illuminate character — the character of a person, or of a place. By having been there, you can take the reader back to a similar spot.

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