Sensory Soup

Yeah, so I found myself in Lake Charles, Louisiana about two weeks ago. Long story why, won’t go into that here. It’s not the most exciting town around, but they do have some good gumbo, like the bowl I ate (shown in pic) from KD’s Diner.

You don’t fall asleep while you’re eating gumbo. It’s alive with an intricate blend of taste sensations that’s a bit different wherever you go. There’s a kick, yes, but also a darkness (from the roux) that seems like it’s coming from somewhere deep underground.

We should make the most of our senses because it makes our lives spicier, and this goes double for the writers in the room, who are responsible for stirring the world around us into a soup of words. 

Here’s Fred Plotkin, author of books on opera and Italian cuisine:

Most humans have been given the remarkable gift of five senses, but few use them to their fullest potential. I try to activate all of them all the time and, in so doing, make myself open to sensations and memories most people miss. I listen rather than hear. I savor rather than eat or smell. I look rather than see. I feel rather than touch.

You can translate sensory experience in a simple manner, like this line from Rick Rojas’s NY Times article about the recent heat in Louisiana:

Cool air swirled through the devil-red metal box of a building.

Or you can get fancier with it, like this night-sky description from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses:

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

Sight is key, but cook with the other four senses as well, even blending them. My colleague Kelly Caldwell wrote about the sense of touch here.

Check out this from Elizabeth McCracken’s short story “It’s Not You”:

The Bloody Mary had some spice in it that sent a tickle through my palate into my nose. A prickle, a yearning, an itch: a gathering sneezish sensation.

Aren’t you feeling that?

And check out this from Tommy Orange’s novel There There:

I watch my shadow grow long then flatten on the highway as a car flies by without slowing or seeming to notice me. Not that I want slowing or notice. I kick a rock and hear it ding against a can or some hollow thing in the grass. I pick up my pace and as I do a hot gust of air and the smell of gas blow by with the passing of a big truck.

When you read this, you’re standing on that highway right beside this character. What did you experience, sensorially, today or yesterday? Write it up.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President

Shakespeare’s Wife

By chance this summer, I saw the Broadway musical &Juliet at the same time I was reading Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet. In both stories, Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare, plays a major role.
Hamnet alternates between two time frames: 1) the courtship and early days of marriage between Will and Anne, and 2) Anne coping with the illness and eventual death of their 11-year old son, Hamnet, from the plague while Will is off in London doing his theatre thing.
&Juliet is a jukebox musical, using pop songs to tell a radical new version of Romeo and Juliet. Anne doesn’t like that Juliet kills herself after finding the dead Romeo, so she convinces Will to let Juliet live and run off to a life of adventure in Paris.
In both stories, Anne is as fascinating (if not more) than her famous husband, and they are seen to be a dynamic couple with all the push-pull that you’ll find in most marriages. With scant historical record about these folks, it’s mostly speculation—but you walk away feeling closer to this page of literary history.
If you’re ever looking for a story idea—and we writers usually are—history presents a vast tapestry of colorful characters and events from which you can pluck something to use. Chances are there’s already a place or personage that’s captured your attention.
Taking a peripheral character from history, like Shakespeare’s wife, is an intriguing way to go. Peter Shaffer’s play and film Amadeus tell the story of Salieri, a composer who’s a contemporary of Mozart who believes God has placed Mozart in Vienna to taunt him about his own mediocrity. Salieri will have his revenge.
Or take someone pulled unwittingly into history. In 1991, Rodney King was beaten unmercifully by four police officers, an event caught on a video; when the policemen were acquitted in court, a massive riot exploded on the streets of LA. Tracey Rose Peyton’s short story “The Last Days of Rodney” depicts the final day in Rodney’s life, 21 years later.
Sure, you can take a well-known figure. Stories about Abraham Lincoln are as wildly diverse as the Spielberg film Lincoln, George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo, and the action film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Gotham teacher Rita Chang-Eppig certainly heard the call to raid history. Her novel Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea tells the story of Shek Yeung, a woman who led thousands of pirates in the South China Sea in the early 19th century while also managing the role of wife and mother. (You can read an excerpt in this very newsletter.)
I’ll leave you now to ponder our past.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President


Camaraderie is a wonderful thing (albeit tricky to spell).

I was touched by the camaraderie I saw on display at the Tony Awards ceremony a few weeks ago. When the cast of a Broadway show finished their musical performance, the camera showed them coming offstage, being cheered by the cast of another Broadway show about to go on for their performance. You could feel the brassy love and support between each group.

Back in the day, I did some acting in the theatre, and I can tell you one of the many highs from those days was the feeling of camaraderie among the cast and crew. You see this in all kinds of groups where everyone is aiming for a collective goal amid pressure, nerves, and charged emotions. Playing in a band, competing as part of a team, working on a construction crew, fighting on a battlefield.

Writing is mostly done solo. And there’s a beauty to cocooning yourself in the world of your words and story, whether you’re alone in a room or surrounded by people in a public space.

Still, writers need camaraderie, for the sake of their work, not to mention their mental health.

You can always try brainstorming with one or more people. Ask them to help you brainstorm ideas for your story with an offer to return the favor.

Recently we needed a fun idea for our summer writing contest, so I brainstormed with Emma (from our staff) and Maya (our current intern). Someone would toss out an idea, we’d bat it around, make it better, then we’d keep tossing and batting and improving.

We came up with the Not-So-Great Outdoors Contest, which I hope you’ll enter.

Writing classes are also a great place to find camaraderie. I can feel it from the NYC classes adjoining our offices: when I hear a wave of laughter or peek in to see everyone diving into a classmate’s story, offering praise and advice. But there’s also plenty of communing in our Zoom and Online classes, where you get the bonus of students from all over the place.

Hey, we have lots of summer classes starting soon.

Also, please consider coming to one of our free writing classes in Bryant Park this summer, starting Thursday July 6. We always get a great turnout of writers at all levels. And we have a super lineup of teachers and topics. These nights are kind of magical—writing in this gorgeous jewel of a park smack dab in the middle of the most vibrant city in the world. It’s a welcoming vibe, an easy place to make a friend or just feel the excitement of people coming together for a writing adventure.

Alex Steele,