…like a night in the forest… So sing Simon and Garfunkel. And indeed, what could be more stimulating to the senses than a night in the forest? That terrifying and beautiful combination of sounds and shadows. Dew-damp earth, creaking branches, a fox flashing red through the undergrowth, the ghostly song of a lone owl echoing through a dark sky.
Life, especially the over-stimulation of modern life, makes us sensorily numb. To cope with the daily business of living, we filter out our everyday sounds, scents, sights, tastes and textures. It would be exhausting, after all, to feel everything. And yet, as writers, it’s our job to be alive to these ordinary sensations so that we can create worlds that are real and recognisable, worlds that are experienced authentically by our characters. So we need to tap back in, to remove the filter, to shake ourselves awake – and to spread out the tentacles of ours senses so that we feel again what it means to be alive. It’s something I remind my writing students. Don’t forget the five senses, I slip in as they’re sitting there, heads bent over their stories.
I also tell them my students that most of us have a dominant sense and that often one or more of our senses is impaired and so we compensate. Dear Milo sees the world through a pinhole – and so he focuses more, and listens more closely to what might be outside his field of vision. I’m terribly short-sighted. If I take my contact lenses my world is a blur. And so seeing things is particularly important to me. My sense of smell is acutely developed (being pregnant, when the volume is turned to max on smells, made my feel perpetually sick). And my husband thinks I have supersonic hearing. And that’s a form of characterisation too: how we all have a sensorily lopsided way of experiencing life and how that affects how we relate to people and situations.
And here I come back to my little Tennessee who has, once again, has handed me an unexpected gift. As I spend my days (and a good part of my nights) with my little girl, I experience the world through her. And to her, the world is new. From the moment she was born, she began gathering sensations. The first time she heard Hugh sneeze, she jumped out of her skin. The first time we put her in the bath and poured water over her head, her eyes went wide and her strong little arms and legs splashed around, loving this new soft, fluid resistance. When she first noticed Viola, one of my cats, and griped her fur in her tiny fist, Tennessee scrunched up her eyebrows and looked to me as if waiting for an explanation. When I give her Calpol, she crinkles her nose. The recent heatwave overwhelmed her small body – babies cannot regulate their body temperature and so they overheat and get cold more rapidly than we do. She’s just discovered that her hands can reach out and grip things: he bar of her bouncer; a strand of my hair; her toe.
It’s telling that there are Baby Sensory classes for 0-18 month olds. Hugh and I took her to a taster session. Bubbles. Floaty scarves. Bouncy balls that light up in the dark. It’s a good idea and, from what the teacher said, every new sensation builds new neural connections. You can pick out a sensory baby, she said. I’ll be starting the proper classes tomorrow and I can’t wait to see how Tennessee responds. These classes are researched to appeal to babies and to give them as a rich a sensory experience as possible in an hour. But beyond these classes, the world is already doing a good job of stimulating her just by allowing her to share in it, moment by moment. And if you’re a half-way decent parent, you can use every day life to have some sensory fun: Tennessee looks at my electric toothbrush like it’s a UFO; my mother in law takes her round the garden and lets her smell the rosemary and lavender bushes; this morning, when Hugh opened his Father’s day gift, a small tray for his bits and pieces, he put the new, shiny leather to her nose; and if you’re wearing a stripy top, she’ll stare it for hours as if working out the most complex of puzzles.
Of course, there is that sixth sense I remind my writers of too. The inexplicable but no less real feeling that gives our heart an extra beat. Tennessee feels that too. Just like she knows when I’m in the room, no matter how quiet I am. Just like she sees angels dancing on the ceiling.
So, once again, I thank you my little girl for filling up my senses – for helping me feel the world anew and so become a better writer.