Writing Prompt #5: Dorothy Parker and the 5 Senses

Matilda Butler, SheWrites Guest Editor and Co-Founder Women's Memoirs


Writing Prompt #5, Dorothy Parker and Unique Uses of the 5 Senses

Welcome back for day 5 of seeking guidance and insight from the indomitable Dorothy Parker. It's true that she had personal problems and suffered from depression. But she kept her forward momentum. Today, I'd like to focus on one of the elements of writing that can make a significant change in the effectiveness of your writing -- the five senses. 

Everybody knows what the five senses are -- sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Well, most people. I've occasionally had a student look at me with a wrinkled brow and say, "Um. That's four. What's the fifth one?"  When we write, we don't want to talk to our readers. We want them to join us in the world (real or imagined) that we are creating with words. One of the best ways to do that is to invoke the same senses that surround us all day, each day. 

Dorothy Parker Uses the 5 Senses and SheWrites Experiments

Read the Dorothy Parker quote out loud. "His voice was as intimate as the rustle of sheets." She described a sound, in this instance a voice, by using a completely different sound. If you were writing about a person's voice, you might first think that it is "deep" or "resonant." Or you might think of volume and write "soft" or "loud." Giving the reader an unexpected sound causes the person to linger over your choice of words. The result is that instead of passing quickly over the description, the reader has a stronger sense of the person.


To give this some thought, consider the following writing prompts.

SheWrites Writes: More Dorothy Parker-Inspired Writing Prompts


Writing Prompt #1: Start with "Her voice was..." and complete the sentence. Try it several ways. Think of interesting ways to describe a voice that will give the reader a clear image of the person who is speaking.

Writing Prompt #2: Look at the second Dorothy Parker quote: "Don't look at me in that tone of voice." This is a different approach to creative use of the senses. Parker has explained sight (Don't look...) with sound (...tone of voice). Experiment. Write a description that uses one sense to describe another one. Have fun with this. Be outlandish as that is a good way to get your creativity in play.


Writing Prompt #3: Too busy to write? Try this exercise. For the next 10 minutes, continue with your normal activities. Then stop and make a list of all the ways that your senses have been involved. The sense of touch as your fingers fly over the keyboard? The sense of sound as each finger releases a key? The hum of the refrigerator in the background? The cold metal rung of the chair beneath your feet? The scent of freshly brewed coffee in the air? The crow making its regular morning fuss just outside your window? The dark green leaves of Oregon live oak, covering its winter coat of moss? The sweet taste of local cherries? The bitterness of dark roast French coffee?

Every moment you are interacting with the environment through our senses. Find ways to effectively use them in your writing. These three writing prompts will help you dig deeper into your use of the five senses. 



PS  If you could only do one thing to change your writing in the short term, then get into the detail of the five senses. Incorporate sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch in what you write. We've seen writing improve when that was the only change in a scene or vignette. Kendra Bonnet and I devote a chapter to understanding and using the five senses in our new book: Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep. We share secrets that put you in total control of your writing process and incorporate the best of social science research to help you write with intense purpose…and have fun in the process.



 I'll be back tomorrow with another Dorothy Parker quote and writing prompt. Hope to see you then.



Matilda Butler is the award-winning author of several books including her co-authored memoir:

Rosie's Daughters: The "First Woman To" Generation Tells Its Story 

and the soon-to-be released: 

Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep,

both co-written with her business partner, Kendra Bonnett. Butler and Bonnett are the co-founders of Women's Memoirs, a website with tips and advice for writers. CLICK HERE for free ebooks for women interested in writing their memoirs as well as free videos based on advice from such well-known authors as: Annie Dillard, Ernest Hemingway, William Zinssser, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Berg, Elmore Leonard, Rita Mae Brown, Natalie Goldberg, David McCullough, and others.


For information on our contests, go to: http://womensmemoirs.com/contests/  NOTE: The next contest deadline is July 1. You still have time to enter.



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Comment by Alexandra Caselle on January 18, 2013 at 3:15pm
I LOVE Dorothy Parker! I discovered her in a literature course on Hemingway. Her poem "Resume" is one of my many favorites. I like the examples you used.
Comment by Matilda Butler on June 18, 2012 at 9:47am

Hi Adela: Yes, you are right. Science tells us that smell was the first sense to evolve, making it our most primitive sense. It is intertwined in the brain with the center for our emotions, behavior and long-term memory. That's why smelling something often triggers memories. Have you read Rachel Herz's book The Scent of Desire? She has some wonderful examples. We go into depth about each of the senses -- where the appropriate vocabulary comes from -- and more in our book Writing Alchemy.

Our pre-order price is good for a few more days -- until June 25. If you are interested, you can go to our website (http://womensmemoirs.com) or clink on the Writing Alchemy link in the post above. 

Thanks for your comment. 


Comment by Adela Crandell Durkee on June 18, 2012 at 9:03am

The sense of smell is the hardest for me to remember to incorporate.  There are a couple people in my book club that just relish the sentences that describe smell.  I read somewhere that the area of the brain that processes smell is very close to the area that processes memory.  A good thing to remember when writing memoir.  My favorite description using smell:  Mama was gone a long time.  Pretty soon, my sheets smelled like the old bird's nest I found under the apple tree.  (Uh huh, I've smelled those sheets before.)

Comment by Matilda Butler on June 14, 2012 at 4:47pm

Hi Monica: I remember the day I had my own aha moment. I was always so focused on what needed to be said that I had forgotten to look around the incorporate the sensory detail that is a vital part of every life. From that day on, the five senses revealed themselves as part of the life force of writing.

Thanks for your comment. -- Matilda


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