Writing prompt 15: Senses of place
For this prompt, your challenge is to describe a place and then go further, describing the place in a way that conveys the meaning that the place holds for you. The purpose of this exercise is to write more evocative descriptions.
Don’t set the bar too high, trying to describe a special place. The emotions that special places arouse can be difficult to distill on the page. Instead, select a location from your daily life—your kitchen, a favourite cafe, a yoga studio or gym, the local library or cinema, a favourite walk or lookout, a place you try to avoid.
If your selected location is large, focus on a smaller sub-area. Rather than trying to describe your whole garden, perhaps focus on one corner. If you choose a 3-day music festival, your subject is so big that you can use only big brushstrokes to describe. What about focusing on one venue, music act, or food stall?
Once you have chosen a location, do the following:
- Visit the location.
Jot down a few notes about what you’d like to include in your description. If you cannot visit the location, still take notes about what memories about the place you want to incorporate.
- Link your description to the senses.
Work with your notes and start to add depth to your material. E.g., ‘an Oriental rug’ may become a ‘soft, rich-red Oriental rug, thread-bare where the dining chairs had sat’. The word ‘TV’ may turn into ‘ancient TV set punctually blaring out the evening news’. Incorporate all five senses.
Make it easy for readers to see, hear, feel/touch, taste, smell your chosen place. What about temperature, changes in light, the sense of time passing?
Be adventurous: Go over the top, get flowery, write long and detailed descriptions, sink your nouns with long adjective strings. This is your chance to have fun. You can prune later.
- Highlight one emotion.
Now try rewriting your place description to incorporate a dominant emotion. Let the emotion colour the way you describe the place. A dominant emotion shapes the writer’s choice of language, images, and sensory details.
Two people may describe a cemetery but the two descriptions will be quite different if one person works with the idea of ‘fear’ and the other with ‘lost love’.
- Establish the essence of your chosen place.
What is essence? It refers to important, enduring elements.
I attend a weekly yoga class. If describing the yoga studio, I could consider what it was like this morning when I was there. But how much more interesting if I distilled from my years of attending just what makes this studio the place that it is. The philosopher Plato called this the essence of forms.
My description would be an attempt to capture the essence of the studio, its ‘yoganess’. Other people trying this prompt may search for the ‘kitchenness’ of their kitchen, by thinking back to other kitchens they have experienced. Or the ‘tentness’ of their tent, reflecting on all their bushwalking trips, in good weather and bad, when this tent was with them.
Professional writers work with such essences, perhaps subconsciously. They count on audiences enjoying familiar traditional scenes—the happy wedding, the excitement of moving into a new house. Or they may subvert these conventions to raise readers’ curiosity. Examples: the hilariously accident-prone wedding, the new owners feeling something is not quite right about their home.
Think through your experience with locations like the one you’ve chosen—other kitchens, tents, yoga studios—and decide what to draw on as similarities or differences.
- Use a telling activity.
To help establish the essence of the location, you could try including an activity that helps you tell more about the place.
You can describe a bottle shop as if a camera is taking in the place. Or you can put yourself in this location as you hurriedly look for an inexpensive red to take to your friend’s place.
Are you describing an empty yoga studio? Or are you there, participating in a challenging class?
If you are there, in action, how does what you are doing affect your mood and your description? Specifically, how does the action affect what you notice?
You can also put someone else in your scene, instead of yourself or in addition to yourself.
- Describe a place from your past.
Again it doesn’t have to be something major. Do some freewriting and see what comes to the surface.
Is it your childhood backyard? A holiday cabin? Your grandmother’s dining room? A bar you frequented during your first year of college? A friend’s house? The place where you had your first sexual encounter?
In describing this place from the past, consider how you want to treat the material. Will the dominant tone be one of anger, humour, grief, resignation? What specifics can you come up with? Encourage your subconscious to retrieve details.
- I remember.
If you find it hard to come up with something, start a timed freewriting with this phrase, I remember…—and keep going. If you come to a stop, write the phrase again, I remember, and let another memory of a place drop into your head and through your arm to your pen or keyboard.