How Writing Heightened My Senses

“When a regular person gets sick, they take an aspirin.  When a writer gets sick, they take notes…”

This past July I found myself in the hospital – as a visitor, not a patient. It was the first time I’d been in a hospital in years.

I was there early in the morning, and as I rounded a corner there was a multi-tiered cart pushed against the wall holding dirty dishes from the patients’ breakfasts. Walking past, I was hit with the unmistakable smell of stale pancakes and maple syrup. Despite everything that was on my mind that morning (my wife had stayed overnight with a mystery illness), those smells put a thought in my head – I need to remember this.

Suddenly I began looking around more aware, trying to take it all in:

The smell of the pancakes and syrup, the way the cart with all the dirty plates was pushed against the wall.

The chatter at the nurses station as well as all the different beeps, boops, and hums throughout the floor.

The people ending their overnight shifts with dead, heavy eyes, in contrast with the morning shift who had just started, bright-eyed and smiling as they made coffee and chirped “Good morning!” to everyone.

The (mostly elderly) patients that you could tell had been there quite some time, padding up and down the halls in their robes and slippers as part of their physical therapy, rolling their IV’s along beside them.

It was like I’d flipped open a mental notebook and was trying to commit to memory every detail I could because, as I realized that morning, it was inevitable one of my characters would end up in the hospital someday. Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort to take more notice of my surroundings.

I’ve always been a people watcher and an eavesdropper by nature; I could sit in a mall food court or similar public place and watch people for hours – making up imaginary backstories for them, trying to figure out where they’re coming from and where they’re headed, that sort of thing.

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Judging from the size of his backpack, this young man has obviously just run away from home. (Wikipedia)

But now I’m listening to ambient noise, looking at minute details, trying to identify smells and thinking about how to describe them. It’s like suddenly my senses have been heightened; everything is more vivid because I’m paying more attention in hopes of being able to describe it in my writing later on.

About six weeks ago I had a stomach bug that lasted for about five days. It was awful. I was absolutely miserable. But it was different this time – I thought about it like a writer. I paid attention to every little twinge of pain in my stomach. Of course it hurt, but how did it hurt? What did it feel like?

I was driving not too long ago and saw that the street up ahead of me had been closed off. There were firetrucks everywhere with their lights on. I slowed to just above an idle and grabbed my phone, snapping pictures as I took the detour. When I got home I looked at the pictures to see how many vehicles were actually there and where they all were. Some parked diagonally to head off traffic; a few were on the curb; two just stopped right in the middle of the street. I had no idea what was going on or why the fire department was there, but it helped give me a frame of reference whenever I have to describe a situation where emergency vehicles arrive on scene.

We’ve all heard about how when a person loses one of their senses, their others are heightened. Someone who loses their eyesight will find their hearing becomes quite acute, or maybe develop an exquisite sense of smell. That’s kind of how I feel anymore. Ever since I started paying more attention to improve my writing, I feel like I have super senses. I see more, I hear more, smell more, feel more than ever before. As an added bonus I haven’t had to lose any senses in the process. 🙂

I’m not sure if this is normal for other writers or not. I’d imagine a lot of writers already have that attention to detail that I’m just picking up. That’s probably why it seems like every writer but me has an 80,000-100,000 word first draft to slash down, while I can barely hit 50,000 and keep finding more to add. So tell me, fellow writers, has writing made you more aware, or were just born that way?

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9 thoughts on “How Writing Heightened My Senses

  1. I have the nose of a blood hound and tend to associate things with smell. It’s something I’ve always done though. It’s kind of weird. I may not remember what color hair they had but I remember how they smelled.

  2. “I’ve always been a people watcher and an eavesdropper by nature; I could sit in a mall food court or similar public place and watch people for hours – making up imaginary backstories for them, trying to figure out where they’re coming from and where they’re headed, that sort of thing.”
    This sounds just like me ^^

    I’ve had a good hearing ever since I was a little kid. So I probably was born with that 😉 But not until recently I started paying attention to my surroundings. I realise it helps me in my writing, it makes it more realistic, I think. I try to take in as much as possible and remember as much as possible. Impossible of course, but I try 😉 There’s so much you can learn from observing!

  3. This is cool. Are you writing your thoughts down or just logging them in your memory?
    I know photographers are exactly like this. The way they will look at a rusty cattle grid or a fallen leaf is so different from how I would. I guess it’s about training yourself to spot these moments or scenes that others might not.

    1. For now I just try to make a mental note, but when my wife asked for gift ideas for Christmas I asked for a little notebook that I can keep near me all the time so I can jot things down as I think of them or notice them. The old memory is not that reliable.

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