Opening to Your Senses: A Series for Writers – Part I: Visual

Introduction to the Opening to Your Senses Series  

Do you ever become so immersed in a novel or short story you forget that you’re reading a book?  Does the description seem so vivid you feel you are inhabiting this other world?

Can you see every whisker on the old man’s face, hear the gratingDSCN1660 voice of his wife, smell the fragrance of the roses in their back garden, taste the salt air that blows in from the sea, feel the matted fur of their cat, and become unnerved by something in their old house, but aren’t sure by what or why? If so, the author has probably done a great job of including sensuous details in their work. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word sensuous as “relating to or affecting the senses rather than the intellect.”

As human beings, we experience the world through our senses – through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.  Personally I like to also include intuition – that overall sense of a place or a situation that we feel in our gut;  a “knowing” that goes beyond fact and logic.

In this six part blog series I’d like to help you, as a writer, open up to the worldDSCN6087 of your senses. By consciously utilizing your senses on a daily basis, you may develop a greater awareness of the sensuous details that surround you, and express this awareness in your writing. Sensuous details may  begin to show up more frequently in your work. Each blog post will focus on a different sense, starting with today’s focus on the visual.

Part I: Opening to the Visual

Unless our vision is impaired, seeing is the primary way we take in the world from the moment we are able to see. Many of us dream in vivid, colourful images.

I began to rediscover the world around me through new eyes after I left anDSCN3253 enjoyable but stressful job a few years ago.  When I gave up commuting to the city, long hours of work and constant rushing, I suddenly had the time to stop and observe the world around me. I found myself taking time to watch how droplets of water on a veined leaf glittered like jewels in early morning light.  And I marvelled at the way a morning glory blossom slowly unfurled, almost right before my eyes.  

Using a digital camera or the camera in your smartphone is a great way to begin to observe the world more closely.  I decided to take a basic photography course toDSCN3339 help me capture all of the beautiful details I had begun to notice as I slowed down.  I became more observant, and started looking for small, beautiful details everyday. One evening as I prepared to cook pasta I became fascinated by the circular patterns made by the drops of olive oil I added to the water.  They looked like mysterious planets. I began to photograph them and, needless to say, dinner was late that evening.  But I experienced such joy at my discovery, and one day this detail is bound to show up in my writing. 

Here are some exercises for developing greater visual awareness 

Exercise: Observing the World Around You

  • decide where you’d like to try this exercise – in your home, a café, an outdoor setting.  Have a pen and paper handy.  Make yourself comfortable and close your eyes for a moment.  When you open them, look at your surroundings as though observing themDSCN5173 for the first time.  Move your eyes slowly truly seeing what is around you, and for ten minutes write down what you observe.  Be descriptive.  For example, instead of “colourful platter” you might write “an oval shaped platter with hand-painted designs in green, red, orange, yellow and blue.” Try this exercise in a variety of settings.  Regular practice will help enhance your powers of observation.  You may also wish to try this exercise with a friend, then read your lists to each other, comparing your observations

Exercise: Writing About a Kitchen From Your Childhood 

  • think back to a kitchen from your childhood.  Take ten minutes to write asDSCN3928 many details about the kitchen as you can remember.  It may help if you draw a rough sketch of the room, with the location of the window(s), stove, refrigerator, and other memorable features, before you start. You may wish to follow this exercise with a ten minute freewrite in which you include some of the details you have written down      

Colour Exercises

  • choose a colour first thing in the morning and during the day see how many examples of thisDSCN7499 colour you can find.  You may wish to photograph your “finds” or at minimum, keep a list. You may be surprised at how many times the colour shows up when you look for it.  You’ll probably also find yourself paying lots of attention to the details of your environment during the day. At the end of the day, use one of your photographs or one of the items on your list as the start of a ten minute freewriting prompt
  • CLICK HERE to be taken to a Winsor & Newton paint colour chart.  Choose one of the exotically-named colours and write for ten minutes listing all of the associations you can make inspired by that colour

A Few More Ideas   

  • you probably already carry a small notebook. Use it to record your visual observations, especially ones that strike you as unusual or odd
  • if you are writing about a specific setting and need some visual images to inspireDSC00352A your writing, consider going to: or
  • take photographs and make notes when you travel -whether it’s to a not-so-far-away town you’ve never visited, or a locale half way around the world – let your eyes feast on the new visual details, and record them in a travel journal and with your camera

I hope you have enjoyed reading this first post in Opening to Your Senses: A Series for Writers, a six part series that will unfold over the coming weeks. When you write, do you tend to favour one or two senses?  I’d love to hear about your experiences. 

Until next time,



Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, March 23, 2014.  We hope you can join us.

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All photographs in this post are by Janis McCallen


5 comments Write a comment

    • We’re pleased that you liked this article, and hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the posts in this series about opening to our senses. Thanks for stopping by.

  1. Hi Janis,
    You offer wonderful suggestions. I asked my two older sisters to describe their remembrances of the kitchen of our grandparents’ cottage on Washburn Island. We visited there from my first sister’s birth in 1943 until the cottage was sold in 1973. Although we agreed on much of the kitchen set up, colours and textures, one of my sisters was adamant that the old wooden icebox was in a different location than the other two of us. None of us could place the kitchen sink for certain! And because electricity came in 1954, we tended to forget that for many years naptha oil lamps lit the room. Memory of a kitchen, although imperfect, can be a starting point for remembering what kinds of food we ate, who did the cooking, how we transported water ….

    • Hi Mary,
      Thank you for sharing how the memories you and your sisters have of your grandparents’ cottage on Washburn Island differ. What a beautifully rich description. I’m fascinated by how imperfect memory can be, and how we can hold very different remembrances of a shared experience. You’re right. Kitchens are a great starting point for remembering, because of all that went on within their walls.


  2. Pingback: Opening to Your Senses: A Series for Writers – Part 2: Sound | Writing From The Centre

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