Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
July 23, 2016
NOTE: The craft essay below is by Anne Marie Oomen, an extraordinarily gifted writer/teacher who I've known and taught with for almost thirty years. Anne Marie's intriguing, ground- breaking essay uses guided prompts and specific exercises and examples to illustrate the various ways in which sensory recall helps shape the early stages of our composing process.Her essay will be of value to teachers at all levels as well as to inexperienced and seasoned writers alike.
BLOG # 51 SENSORY INTERROGATION, ANNE MARIE OOMEN
July 23, 2016
As a memoirist, I can muck about aimlessly in whatever memory haunts me, significant or insignificant, for so long that I lose momentum and drop the draft before I know anything about that memory other than that I have it by the tail and don’t know what to do. Meaningful, even transformative, memories float in my mind, strangely foggy, lacking a truer, writerly or crafted meaning. I want meaning; I can’t find it. Yet these fragments stay and stay, worry me like the tongue to the chipped tooth. They want to be story. If I can develop them, they will shape my page-persona, and in some cases, my very being. But I am slow. I need a process to fill out the memory, to slow me down so I’m not racing for meaning before I discover what I actually hold in that obsessive brain of mine. I need a more efficient means of focus. In this, I am not alone. Getting memory from the mind to the page is often a challenge for the developing writers in my classes as well. Early drafts tend to be flat, vaguely abstract. Of course, they are early drafts, but if we could launch a little further along in the process, if we could mine what we didn’t know that we knew, it might be like touching skin; if not, it is like touching paper. Only one is warm.
As brain science has evolved in the last decades, it has proven that some of our old school teaching practices were effective for reasons we couldn’t then articulate except in philosophical terms. One successful reclamation is sensory recall. In short, parts of the brain coordinate with sensory experience: the more engaged, the richer the recall, and often, the richer the writing. Those odd neurological patterns, those banks of brain cells that shimmer with change and replication, those encoded reports—they hold the secrets that open not just memory but initiate the journey to both meaning and narrative. When I discovered what so many writers before me have also discovered: that the senses led straight to my working memory, the memory that initiates story and enriches it enough to suggest a path to larger meaning, things got easier. The problem with this? Simply saying to myself, and to my young writers: Use sensory language. That is about as helpful as reminding a child to tie her shoes before she has learned.
Over the last two decades of teaching and writing memoir with both adults and young artists, I refined a particular process for getting to the senses. I gave it a dubious name: sensory interrogation. Even twenty years ago, I knew the term was politically weighted and carried more serious connotations, yet despite its darker meanings, it worked for me because of its abrasive feel. That abrasion of memory—its nervy psoriasis—kept me asking: why this memory? Why not the one my sibling has? What’s behind the thing we carry, the rub of the mind, that scabbed over identity? Initially, sensory interrogation prodded a truth I didn’t know, or more often, didn’t want to know. For me, getting the senses to the pages of memoir asked: What am I hiding from myself? And secreted in the sensory recall were the just-starting-to-be-visible answers, as well as fine ways to draw in readers. Eventually, as Steven King claims, sensory language builds a relationship with the reader because it makes it easier for them to read our minds.
Put simply, interrogation is sensory recall: simple, obvious, familiar, and addressed in many textbooks. It places the senses first. I used the word “interrogation” to describe a specific set of pointed questions for getting to the sensory experience, for producing language that leads. Before I incorporated sensory recall into my early process, I tended toward narrative summary. That places action first. It’s the synopsis of the movie, not, as Jack Kerouac would have it, the movie of the mind.
I observed in my students a similar impulse, to summarize what happened—often with admirable style or voice, but we we were miles from meaning, and the potential for metaphor and figurative language was also delayed. Even dramatic action mutes in summary, denied forward motion by our unwillingness to harness the senses immediately. Was there an efficiency I could find with sensory questions? I examined how I thought when I entered the scattered realm of memory, and over time, I developed a set of questions that were sensory specific, but also uniquely phrased to initiate deeper recall. Through this interrogation, answers for how to shape the narrator and the narrator’s intention often surfaced more quickly. This shortcut did what process should do: make it easier. Gornick, Hampl, Root and Steinberg, in more sophisticated terms, have led us in this work but I like to think I’ve added some twists.
First, I talk about transformative moments. I explain these are moments where something existed one way before it happened, and another way after it happened. I offer examples: first car, first kiss, childbirth(s), deaths of a loved/hated one, winning or losing, wedding, coming out, break-up, divorce, court verdict, accidents, moments of synchronicity, a car, a scar, a broken bone. The essence: an internal shift. I/You were changed. I ask them to avoid a long time period, and instead to zero in on moments of the time period. So for instance, not the entire year in the Peace Corp, but the moment when, in the village, the water bubbled up from the new well for the first time, and you saw what it would mean to the child water-carriers who had previously walked for miles in the heat.
Next, on each of three plain white (no lines) five by eight cards, participants write a phrase that suggests one of those transformative moments from their lives, a moment they want to write about because they know it carries weight, but they don’t know its secret yet. One on each card. Why three total? Because finding the one to write about raises the stakes, but as William Stafford suggests, having three lowers the stakes, takes the pressure off. If one moment doesn’t work or, as is more often the case, turns out to be too hot, then the alternative is right there, not to worry. Choose one of the others. And why a card? Because it needs to be small enough to be utterly non-threatening, and big enough to fill satisfactorily. With the card, I am saying two things to my students and to myself: Don’t be scared andLook how much you have. Most know that, but the card makes tangible the belief.
Then I ask writers to study the “moments” on the three cards, letting their minds range, and find the one they want to investigate now. I tell them that maybe they will feel some energy around this particular card. They usually know right away. I ask them to focus on that one, and to turn the others over for now. I tell them that if this one gets too hot or goes cold, just choose another. The only way to do this wrong is not to do it.
I ask them to take some quiet breaths. I tell them I am going to ask a series of questions that will help open memory of this moment. I ask them not to copy the questions I ask, but to list short answers, just fast first-come responses to the questions. I tell them to avoid complete sentences. Just list. I tell them they may fill both sides of the card, but for now to avoid prose. I set the timer on my phone to 45 seconds after each question, but I watch them, and if a question seems to be keeping heads down, I give them another fifteen or thirty seconds before I ask the next question.
Why I Ask the Questions
Lists of sensory questions exist in many fine texts—because sensory recall is not an uncommon practice. As expected, the questions cover the usual five senses. These texts help, but the problem is logistics. Too much on the desk. Too much to distract. Because when I read, a text is guiding me instead of a human voice—I don’t explore sensory recall with deep discipline. I am scanning the page. I drift among the questions, and maybe I eventually get to some breakthrough, but it is not an efficient process. (This may be my attention problem—though I see it often in my students.)
So with memory and a small pale card as tools, I loose writers from personal distractions by asking the questions aloud, in a group, in a timed setting. I use voice to release writers from interference; there’s no text, no going back to reading. They have only to think and write the response. Perhaps a quiet human voice also instills a release from the interior judgments that can halt writing. It’s just a voice, just a card, just a moment. By acting as facilitator, and freeing them from the formal page, I become more like a benevolent meditation guide—though those who know me will smile at that.
By the way, the guidance I’m offering for them, I am also offering to my own mind. I always have cards of my own. I always have a memory to play with. I don’t always get the quality they do because guiding demands attention, and I am timing. That said, I was taught to write with the class by Mike Steinberg in the eighties. He said it prevents us forgetting what it’s like to be student. It reduces the ego: I will learn memory work along with them. He was right. It has served me well.
First, I ask writers to think of the moment’s place and to stand inside that place, wherever it was. I ask them to just be in that past place, looking around in the space. I tell them to relax about what they can no longer remember, and just feel around in the memory. It doesn’t matter if the space is interior or exterior. Emily Dickinson says, Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Since I never argue with Emily, my sensory questions assume a slant.
1. My first question is not what does it look like. That question asks too much to start and launches sentences when I want just touchstones for the mind. My first question is both more ephemeral and precise: What was the light like?
I stumbled on this first question because artist friends discuss light the way writers discuss language. Writer friends tell me it’s common in memory, but it’s such a given, it gets overlooked or automated—on a bright day in March. The light of memory is rarely mined for meaning, but what it offers is meaningful: not just time of day, but words that suggest mood, and make writers look at, ironically, something that is not quite there—thus launching discovery, a process of seeing through to something unseen. It’s a sideways question that may suggest or contradict mood, a feeling-light moment, an atmospheric translucence toward meaning.
Forty-five to sixty seconds pass. I can hear them breathe.
2 My second question goes like this: Observe that light falling on objects around you. Reach out and touch one object in the place. What is the texture of the thing? Just describe the feel of it, not the thing itself. If writers need more help with this, I tell them the thing may be anything from wall to rain, from tabletop to shoestring, from hotpot to I phone. Just list.
3 I stay with the objects, but enlarge the space. I ask them to list other things that are important to this moment. Inside or outside, small or large, it doesn’t matter; list a few things that are there. Then I add, what are the dominant colors? This question enlarges the visual in color. We often miss color in early drafts. Later, when they refer to this card, color will be one of the sensory details that sticks. Like an expressionist painting.
4 Things move more quickly now. I say, There are sounds in this moment, but one sound rises above the others and that sound is significant. This sound might define the moment. It can be quiet or loud. It can be a voice, a noise, anything from a growl to a violin. Describe its tenor. Describe it in such a way, I would want to imitate it. Again, this invites metaphor and descriptive language. (more…)