A Sense of Touch

My friend and I are planning a beach vacation together, and lately, our giddy-anticipation texts back and forth have been fixated on one thing: Getting sand in our sunscreen.
We’re stupidly excited about whether the sand will be the coarser kind that, when it mixes with your kefir-like SPF 50, magically transforms into a sugar-scrub exfoliant they sell at Lush for $30 a pop. Or maybe it’ll be that baking-powder like sand, and hey, remember that time we tried that sunscreen that allegedly didn’t come off on your clothes? It was the consistency of ranch dressing, and with that soft, powdery sand everywhere, applying it was like rubbing melting gummy worms to your forearms.
There’s nothing like touch, is there?
Writers tend to neglect the sense of touch in our stories, (and smell, too!), preferring the flashier, sometimes easier senses of sight, sound, and taste.
Our stories suffer for this oversight —and not only because we ignore a wealth of material.
Did you know your body has two separate systems for processing touch? Your discriminative touch system tells you whether that fluttery brush of dune grass grazed your knee or your thigh. It’s what tells you whether it tickled or whether it itched.
Your emotional touch system doesn’t care much about where or how, but who. When the touch comes from a loved one, or is unwelcome, or satiates your skin hunger, your emotional touch system sends an entirely different set of messages to your brain. It’s the system that makes touch essential in bonding one human to another.
When we do remember touch, we tend to go for one system or the other, the discriminative one, more often than not. But look what happens when you invoke both, as Yusef Komunyakaa does in these lines from “Lust:”
He longs to be
An orange, to feel fingernails
Run a seam through him.
Frequently we don’t get granular enough. We’ll describe something as “smooth,” and move on.
Observe: Take off your shoes and feel the floor beneath your feet right now. (Unless you’re on the subway!) Now change rooms, and do it again. Both floors may be smooth, or carpeted. But they’re not the same, right? The waxy finish of your parqueted living room is not the same kind of smooth as your unyielding, chilly kitchen tile.
With touch, be choosy with your details and words, and profligate in your brain networks. And remember, simile and metaphor are your friends:
I can’t read the River, can’t see my hand
when it plunges elbow-deep
               to feel the cool against
                            the Mississippi heat—
            hot as a dog’s mouth.                       

 –January Gill O’Neill, “The River Remembers:”

Your turn. Write about two best friends, barefoot and outdoors, and start the story with touch.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

Getting Repetitive

Good fortune found me working across the street from a movie theater recently, and as the smell of popcorn filled the air at 9:30 a.m., I thought, “Weekday matinee!”
Gradually, though, I realized, this was no regular Thursday morning matinee. It was an exclusive showing of Super Mario Bros. for students of a school for special needs children.
Four or five people arrived first, including a little girl in a wheelchair, squealing with joy. Beside her walked a boy with the flatter face and upturned eyes of Down syndrome. Another group arrived, and another, then another. Every group included a child using some kind of assistance: tiny wheelchairs, reclining wheelchairs, sticker-covered wheelchairs, crutches with arm braces, a walker. More children with Down syndrome arrived, too.
How did I know it was a special screening just for them? The doors to the theater stayed locked. Each group knocked on the door, then waited for an usher to let them in.
The exclusivity of the screening revealed itself through repetition.
Writers hear often on our early drafts, “This is repetitive.” But repetition isn’t always something to avoid. It can be a tool we use to reveal truths buried beneath the surface of our work.
You can call back again and again to objects that hold special meaning; you can return again and again to a setting, or repeat a distinct phrase or sentence.
You can use anaphora — repeating a word at the beginning of each sentence or paragraph, or, as Gotham’s Elane Johnson does in her essay “Aftermath,” each phrase. (Click here to read an excerpt.)
You can use epistrophe, repeating something at the end of each sentence, as John Steinbeck did when Tom Joad says goodbye to his mother in The Grapes of Wrath. (Click here to read it.)
Skillful repetition creates a strong emotion around what’s repeated. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” using anaphora to create a sense of urgency for justice. (Click here to read an excerpt.)

Or Carmen Maria Machado in her memoir In the Dream House, reiterating “You wake up, and the air is milky and bright,” until it curdles. (Click here to read excerpts.)
The trick is in the timing — the distance between what you repeat, and the rhythm in the way you do it. I’d love to give you a formula, but, as with most things in writing, you’ve just got to experiment. Read your work out loud, and when your repetition makes you flinch, or you long to skip over it, you know it’s not working.
How you break your pattern of repetition is important, too. Look at how King and Johnson and Steinbeck do it.
Which brings me back to the matinee — what broke the repetition is also what revealed that the moviegoers were students enjoying a morning off: A bright yellow bus, arriving after the movie, whisking everyone off to school.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Don’t Despair

In his excellent book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee at one point compares writing to being sequestered in jail by your own story: “You in a small dark room with no answers to any of your questions, and no one seems to hear your pleas, not for days, months, years. Indifferent the entire time to all requests for visits or freedom. Hard labor too.”

Or, as my student Christola puts it: “I’m writing at writing.”

They’re both describing a distressing place many writers end up in at one time or another. You’re not so much stuck as you’re lost. You type and type but you don’t get anywhere. You cannot see your way forward.

If you find yourself in that cell, don’t despair. Here’s a few steps you can try:

First, let your story rest. Put it away, and give your befuddled brain a break. Leave it alone as long as you can—a day or two if you’re on deadline; weeks if you’re not. As Stephen King says in On Writing, it should be “safely shut away, aging and (one hopes) mellowing [until] it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk shop where you can barely remember stopping.”

Next, write out—by hand, I’m not kidding, use pen and paper—a short list of things you want for this story. Avoid superlatives here, both grandiose (“Greatest screenplay about a meerkat ever,”) and self-flagellating, (“Nice plot, loser”).

Make this like a Saturday morning errands list, or if it works better for you, write it out as if it were an email to your best friend. Remember Grandma’s story about meeting Buffalo Bill, or Eat more eggs. 

Now that you have a guide with your hopes and goals clearly spelled out, go ahead and read your story. When something resonates with you, highlight it or underline it. Most likely, those moments are taking you closer to your hopes and goals. When you dive back in, build on them.

Keep an eye out for what’s missing, too. Where does your aim completely miss your target? Where have you missed ripe opportunities to introduce scenes or sentences that work in those hopes and goals in sooner?

Where is the first resonant line? And where is the first missed opportunity? How can you build a bridge between them? Start there.

Think of it as a rescue and recovery operation—decide what’s most important, look for the solid ground and the critical flaws. And get to work.

Kelly Caldwell, Dean of Faculty