I used to sing. It wasn’t what I was best at, but it was what I loved most.Even as a kid I knew I didn’t have the strongest instrument. My voice was small, light, airy. Nothing like Barbra Streisand’s powerhouse vocals on the vinyl records that I played over and over on my olive green portable record player. Her voice was big and bold, muscular in a way that I envied.
I wanted so much to sound like her–which, of course, I never would (nobody sings like Babs; nobody). But I was determined to improve, so for years I took voice lessons. I worked hard to develop my diaphragm into the equivalent of six-pack abs, to better support my slight, sweet voice. I learned to fill my lungs completely, right up to the tips that rise above the clavicles, and then to send a strong, steady column of air straight through my body as I visualized where the air had to go to make my voice rounder, fuller, richer.
More than the sound of my own voice, though, I loved the feeling that singing gave me, that soaring sense of self as the notes flowed through me and shimmered out into the air.
Once I started writing, I gave up voice lessons. My voice dimmed; the muscles that supported it atrophied. I still sing sometimes–in the shower, to my son at bedtime–but I don’t sound the same. My body doesn’t feel the same way when I sing. I miss the physicality of singing so much that I wrote a story called “F-Man,” published by the wonderful Carve Magazine, that features a character who feels the same loss that I feel every time I try to sing these days.
As I wrote “F-Man,” I realized how key the sensory details about singing, the actual physical sensations, were to establishing the grief that my main character feels once she can’t sing anymore. I was reminded of how essential physical reactions and sensory details are to drawing a reader into the fictive world since they allow the reader to physically experience that world and all its accompanying emotions along with the characters.
Still, I can’t tell you how often I read my own writing and find myself shortcutting, simply telling readers what characters are feeling instead of conveying those emotions through physical reactions and/or sensory details.
That’s when I make myself slow down and search my document for the word “feel” or “felt” so that I can substitute the “she felt/he felt/they felt” passages with more visceral sensory details. I imagine how things might smell or sound or feel on the skin given my character’s emotional reaction to a conflict. I imagine the way my character feels when stretching her arms wide into a hesitant hug, or what it feels like for her to flush with the heat of eager anticipation or to kick at a rock with embarrassment. Or to scream. Really, truly scream using every single muscle, and how the physical sensation of that scream might change based on whatever the screamer is feeling at that moment.
Which brings me to today’s exercise. Because practice makes perfect, I’ve included a whole grid of pictures above, so that you can come back to this exercise and pair the prompt with a different image and try to imagine different reasons for screaming, different emotions that elicit different physical reactions and sensory details.
Pick a picture from above and allow yourself to imagine what each person/being pictured is physically feeling (or might have been feeling prior to his/her demise). What’s happened to elicit the scream? Is it a happy event, a scary one, one that incites rage? What sensory details surrounding the screamer stand out – the silence of the landscape in desperate need of sound, the heat of the sun on the screamer’s body, the rush of waves against sand? Now think about how the screamer feels while screaming. Does the air flow harshly from the lungs? Is the throat dry and scratchy from screaming, or does the body tingle with the rush of making so much noise? Make lists of ways to describe the physical components involved in the scream that you’ve chosen, the emotion that goes along with that scream.
Then spend 20 minutes writing a scene that starts with the line, “I shout your lovely name.”
Start your timer. Ready, set, write!
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