In this five-part column, Hannah Howard explores the senses from a craft perspective
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Beauty is only skin-deep.
Love is blind.
Where the Wild Things AreHow did I get so lucky?
Where the Wild Things Are
Here’s a prompt I love: Envision a red barn. Write about that barn. What do you see in your mind’s eye? Now describe that red barn from the point of view of a character who has just fallen head over heels in love. Then, depict the very same barn from the point of view of someone who is heartbroken.
The barn looks different, right? But how do we find the right words for that difference, the sunny glow of infatuation or the moody cloud of despair? Writing about sight is challenging because what we see depends on where we stand and who we are.
Our first impulse as writers is often to chronicle how something or someone looks. While a photographer can show us an entire scene at once, a writer has to choose what details to include and, just as importantly, which to leave out. Sure, the sky may be blue. You can invoke this by naming a color (periwinkle!) or by using a color metaphor: blue as the farmers market blueberries in July. Or maybe what is more interesting is the way the light bounces off a window, making it iridescent. Or the way the sun shines relentlessly, but your character only sees heaviness through the dark shades of her sadness.
After the movie, we sat outside at Roberta’s and laughed so hard I had to wipe IPA from my nose. We hugged goodbye like we meant it. I saw it in their eyes, too, that thing I might never find in a snapshot, that beauty that erupted in our laughter, tears, long stories, late nights, and weird jokes and not in our arms or our hair. And I felt it: beautiful.
When those little squares on Instagram can’t capture the full experience in all its complexity, our words can.
Sight may be surface level, by definition, but it can be the start to something profound.
Hannah Howard is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and Out of the Kitchen and the forthcoming book Plenty: A Memoir of Food and Family. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. Hannah writes for SELF, New York Magazine, and Salon.com, and lives in New York City.