Photo: Chell Hill

When I write fiction I start with an image. My novel SIREN began as a vision of a character named Merideth on a raft, floating alone in the middle of a bay. The image sparked curiosity. Who was she? What was she doing on the raft? Where was she? For months I questioned Merideth, usually in melodramatic dialogs where she revealed everything she was thinking and feeling. When she talked about people in her world, I began to question them, too, exploring a web of places, relationships, and history. As I got more of an idea of who the characters were and the world they were living in, the dialog was boiled down and distilled until I had something solid that almost resembled an outline. When the outline is done I will flesh things out, and the outline will become a story.

A few months ago, I set a goal for myself to finish the outline for SIREN by the second Saturday in May. With about a month to go, I know how the story begins and ends, and it’s only a matter of straightening the chain of causality, but I get antsy when it’s time to move beyond the outline stage because when you get down to it fiction is about the journey more than destination. It’s about feeling good. Or sad. Or scared and grossed out. It’s not about getting a character into trouble and getting out of it as efficiently as possible. After years of writing tidy little essays, I’m still getting my head around the fact that fiction is all about the senses.

The knees saga has given me an ambivalent relationship with the senses. Dislocations are painful, and for years–especially when my roving kneecaps started to tear tendons and damage cartilage–I wished that there was a way to upload my consciousness and forget the whole idea of having a body. Since ditching my body was impossible, novels became my favorite escape. I gravitated toward heady novels like Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y with its thought experiments and the intellectual monks in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

When I moved to Berkeley, I was entirely focused on getting myself to physical safety, but I quickly discovered that snow wasn’t the only barrier to a healthy life. Healing after years of chronic pain is a mental skill as much as a physical one. Paying attention to the senses is supposed to come naturally, but for twenty years, I’d been using all of my attention and mental resources on emergency vigilance, scanning my environment for danger and trying not to think about how I was feeling.

Berkeley was a feast for the senses. During my first year there I lived in a cottage that grew out of a giant redwood tree. The space was tiny, but out of every window I saw palm trees and gardens, and something was blooming every day of the year. I should have been happy, but the fear that being jostled in a crowd would put me in the hospital didn’t just go away just because I landed in the land of palm trees. The mind likes to follow patterns, and even though the need for vigilance was gone, I still followed the same old mental habits, and they were difficult to break. The absence of constant pain and danger left a hole I didn’t know how to fill.

Mindfulness, being present to the moment and the senses, was a skill I needed to learn. Looking back on it, taking up sitting meditation would have been the obvious solution, but I turned to writing instead. I enrolled in an MFA program, and after a semester and a half of reading and writing poetry, I wrote a novel about consciousness. Reading had been the way I imagined myself out of reality before, so I hoped that writing would help me get back in, and it did. It forced me to build up a store of experiences and details. It transformed my lack of mindfulness from a problem into a project.

But perhaps more importantly, I ate. As everyone who has ever watched Iron Chef knows, food is about more than taste. There is smell to consider and mouth feel, slurps and crunches, how it looks on the plate. A good meal is a feast for all of the senses, and good food writing is, too.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, eating in California changed the way I experienced the senses as I took in as much lettuce and food writing as I could hold.

So, it was no accident that when my novel SIREN reached the place where it was ready to get some meat on its bones, I looked to food writing to help me create an evocative world. Reading  Julia Child’s My Life in France is like learning how to waltz by standing on the feet of an adept. When she describes her first visit to a French restaurant, she takes us through all five senses in less than a page: the warmth of the fire, the brown-and-white decor, the smell of shallots frying in butter, the sound of friendly conversation, and the delicious taste of sole.

Sight. Sound. Taste. Touch. Smell.

1-2-3. 1-2-3. 1-2-3.

I’m writing this post with a heating pad wrapped around my leg, and I would really like for the pain to go away, so I can go for a walk in the park before the white flowering trees fall out of bloom. But I can see flowers from here if I crane to look over the fence, and the pleasure of seeing them from a distance makes me less anxious to get through this phase as quickly as possible. It is the point of writing the senses, I think, to inspire reader and writer both to pause and linger in the spaces–small as they might be–in the plotting to get away from pain and move on to the next thing.