Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sensory Memory, by Raven

Raven a member of “Sweet Hearts of The Rodeo” and a friend has graciously given me an interview on the subject of Sensory Memory that we’ve been studying this last week from Robert Olen Butler’s book “From Where You Dream.” Raven’s blog can be found at: The Raven’s Eye This week, we will be doing the exercise from chapter 9 of his book.

I want to thank Raven for taking the time to do this interview; she is an excellent student of the craft of fiction and a wonderful writer. Read what Raven has to say as she answers the questions I posed, as she talks about a story she is in the mist of writing.

I've been asked by my Sweetheart's colleague, JB, about my view on Robert O. Butler's sensory memory. Recently, I posted my feature story on the Sweetheart's board over at the Writer's Village University. Within the story is a scene in which the main character comes across a dead foal. JB has asked me:

1)Did you draw back in your mind, as you experienced writing the scene visually?

I found that when approaching this scene, my inner eye focused on visual details more than anything else. Smell came into play, but only in a limited way. Most of what my character felt was suspended, in favor of the initial visual impact. In order to record the details, I found it necessary to draw back and view the scene as a camera. The position of the foal, the minute details became the focus of what I intended to be a snapshot of the foal. The moment of discovery, became an objective view in which my character, Evie, acted like a lens, not a filter. From that point, I unraveled the story, allowing Evie to slowly begin the process of filtering how she felt about the dead foal. The result feels intellectual, but the intent is emotional. The gradual unpeeling of Evie's feelings is low key, as opposed to dramatic. In this, I feel the process reflects a version of reality, though not the commonly depicted one. It is more common to see everything stuffed into one paragraph or to find metaphor and simile acting like the filter. Theses are adequate ways to filter scenes and reveal the yearning, but I feel as though these are also temptations that can lead to generalization and abstraction.

The scene, as I have written it, is supposed to rely on what comes shortly before and long after the moment, creating an overall feeling for Evie's situation. It remains to be seen whether it succeeds. The process demands many sessions in which the words, images and descriptions must be continuously stroked. The filter needs to be present in imagery in order to avoid stepping into the "she felt" or "she thought" mode.

Please understand that I am not dismissing the use of the pov filter nor am I saying it isn't a vital tool in writing, I am simply saying that the way in which we utilize the filter can vary according to the conditions created by the story. I think it is a good thing to experiment in order to learn the particulars of this technique.

With my story undergoing its third, serious revision, it remains to be seen whether this approach will satisfy the sensory specifications Mr. Butler calls for in his teachings.

2)What details do you think you could have added that would increase the reader's mind visually to what Grace saw and felt as she viewed the remains?

Visually, I think I've offered enough support. My concern is whether I ought to allow Evie's filter in. I'm reluctant to do so because, after several experiments in which I allowed her to speculate, or "translate" the scene, I felt the intensity of the scene was diluted by what essentially felt like an invasion of Evie's psyche. I believe this may be where the students in chapter eight foundered and lost direction. Sometimes, using the pov filter invites speculation; speculation opens the door to generalization and abstraction. Used carelessly, the filter can be detrimental to a work. On the other hand, I think mastering the combination of the filter and lens is something worth pursuing, so I am returning, yet again, to the scene of the crime to study it and hopefully come up with a combination that meets Mr. Butler's standard.

3) Butler says in Chapter 9 of "From Where You Dream" that sometimes the narrative voice is allowed abstraction and generalization. What do you think that means?

I think this refers to filtering in the reflective sense. To thoroughly know the character, is to understand her/his concept of any word. Characterization takes some of the weight of this form of abstraction/generalization as can dialogue and inner monologue. The words "it hurts." Can be abstract, until the reader knows the main character is sitting under a tree, thinking about her dead father. Then what is general has become specific, though it is voiced as a nonspecific concept. So, then, if proper placement or setting is provided, in addition to good characterization (which would include dialogue, description, etc and character action (which I define as the actual things said and done in the story) I think abstraction and generalization work well enough. I am willing to investigate this further. It is my goal to "soften" Evie in the story. I'm not satisfied that I've accomplished this at this point in the revision.


  1. Raven has given me permission to use a brief excerpt from her story “Garcefall,” thank you Raven. The material is the soul copyright of © by Laurel Wilczek and used with permission. Sensory Memory from an author’s perspective is the impression given to the reader through visual detail the objects the character views through the sense of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.

    In these paragraphs, Raven (in this humble aspiring author’s opinion) touches on the sensory memory Robert Olen Butler talks about in his book “From Where You Dream.”

    Immediately, the reader is aware of the stench in the air, as Evie sniffs the wind, and her stomach recoils calling up images of her mother cutting liver on a blood stained cutting board. Finally spotting the source of the putrid stench, she sees two small hooves pointing upward to the sky.

    Raven you have done an excellent job of drawing the reader, in both feelings and atmosphere of what Evie sees as she crosses the meadow and confronted with the ghastly death of the colt before her.

    © “Gracefall" by Laurel Wilczek
    Halfway down the slope, Evie's head rose from the well of the jacket's collar. She tilted her nose into the wind and sniffed the air. Her nose wrinkled. An unwelcome image of her mother slicing raw liver on a bloodied cutting board came to mind. Her stomach roiled. She covered her mouth with her hand. Her gaze sifted through the grass on either side of the trail. Finally, she spotted the source of the odor. To the right of the path, in a patch of rust-colored grass several feet below where she stood, two petite hooves pointed upward at the sky.

    Evie stared over her shoulder at the foals still at play near the mares and then back at the tips of the feet poking out of the grass. The loose folds of the jacket flapped against her legs, as she paused there, her hand clamped firmly to her mouth. Evie blew several short bursts of air through her nose. Finally, one-step at a time, she went to look more closely at the animal in the grass.

    The newborn foal lay on its back, front legs splayed wide like inverted tent poles, rear legs partially wrapped in the afterbirth and fractured into unnatural angles. The newborn's skull caved inward as if mashed by the heel of a boot. Its muzzle angled up towards the sky, jaws agape and the tip of a blue-black tongue protruded from between its bloodless gums like a fat caterpillar. The umbilical cord was still attached; it wound across its belly, disappearing into what was left of the birthing sac.

  2. Hah,

    With the help of "Mastering Sentences" class I can already see how to rework the last paragraph.
    I have to say, this class is fantastic, hard, but fantastic.


  3. I'm working on incorporating more sensory detail into my own writing. Great interview.

  4. Hi Raven,
    Ah, we do advance studying the craft and looking forward to your rewrite, although I thought the last paragraph was good.

  5. Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you for stopping by, and sharing your thoughts.

  6. I stumbled upon this interview. It is very informative, well written, and intellectual. In question three I felt I grasped the concept, a particularly excellent point, I might also add.

    The in depth explanations as to why details should be closely monitored in writing had me reeling with embarrassment. My details seem to reflect my mood rather than the atmosphere of my working piece. As an Amateur writer (Perhaps, hardly that) I found the interview helpful. Thanks for posting.

    Yes, Raven has a beautiful way of capturing the reader, and gently introducing to them the world and emotional depth of her characters. I often find myself intending to (Skim read) I admit it's quite a habit, and instead slowing down enough to enjoy the subtleties of her writing.

    I hope you will be able to post further helpful tips and information on how to approach tough reads like "From Where you Dream" in the future.


  7. Thank You C.Clarke for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on the article. Skim reading of my own work is something I often do and shouldn't. Bulter advises in his book, for the writer to read aloud their work this is where a lot of mistakes are caught.

  8. Having had the opportunity to read Raven's story through several drafts, it was extremely interesting to read raven's thoughts on the process. Astute observations were made in the interview about how the emotional filter can sometimes be a detriment to being in the moment through the senses as Butler advises. What you are trying to accomplish with that story is very difficult, conveying emotion while keeping a certain distance from the main character's filter. You are doing it beautifully, and each rewrite has made the story stronger.

    Carol from Sweethearts

  9. Hi Carol,
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Hopefully we can twist your arm to do an interview, how about it? You've done a marvelous job with the group, not only this one but P & P as well, how about sharing why you put so much yourself into these groups? And a little bit about your own writing, your poetry? Come on girlfriend. You are special. Have I put you on the spot? Hope so.



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