It’s winter in Santa Fe now, and the colors are chalk brown and muted green huddled amidst the white of mounded snow. In my fireplace I burn Pinion pine, and it makes this northern New Mexico town smell like a perfumed temple on winter days.
What makes you fall in love with a story? What makes you feel you are living it at the moment the words enter you from the page?
For me, it’s the details. I care about the music of the language and universal themes, but as I read narrative nonfiction, and the world of story rises before me, I want to see it, taste it, smell it, hear it, and feel it on my skin.
I open writing classes by asking students: “What did you hear today? What did you smell?” At first those writers, who hurried distractedly to class, sit mute.
“I smelled toast,” one says.
“I heard my alarm clock.”
Over time, they get excited and start to pay attention. They come to class eager, shooting hands into air before I finish attendance.
“I heard a bird!”
“That one with the orange stomach.”
“You mean a robin.”
“Cool,” says the student, grinning: “I heard a robin.”
I believe we must become students of our senses, awe-struck again like babes toddling through life, eyes wide at all that swirls around us.
What did you smell today?
The more we catalogue quietly in our minds the details of our days, the more those details work their way into our narrative nonfiction and perpetuate the dream that is story. The more we spin the dream, the more our writing captures readers.
“I was in a dream,” a reader reports after finishing a book. “I wish it had never ended.”
How many of you have said those very words upon finishing a grand book?