I had the good fortune of taking a poetry writing workshop with Dr. David C. Berry in the fall of 1992. During the first meeting of that course, he laid out the first stanza of Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” on the chalkboard like so:
Nibblin’ on sponge cake
Watching the sun bake
All of those tourists covered with oil,
Strumming my six-string
on my front porch swing,
Smell those shrimp, they’re beginning to boil . . .
Then he explained that the reason “Margaritaville” is fun, and memorable, and popular, is because the stanzas contain an image in every line (and even the chorus has that “lost shaker of salt”). I’ve put the images in bold; he underlined them.
He told us we needed to do only 3 things to get an A in his workshop:
- Turn in a poem per week;
- Give the other poets in the course civil and constructive comments on their work; and
- Include an image in every line until he told us we could break that rule.
I followed the rules because I wanted the A, and I wanted to improve my writing. Sixteen weeks later, the poems I was producing were more mature, more sophisticated, and above all (judging from the feedback) more readable.
If your goal is to give your readers an experience – to transport them, to engage their emotions – give them things to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.
I am not saying you should use this like a formula for everything you write; but I am saying that if you spend one day a week for a few months focusing specifically on improving the use of sensory images in your work, your writing is sure to improve.
If you already know this trick and see it as basic stuff, I do hope you are sharing it with less-experienced writers. 🙂
(Note – I posted an earlier draft of this 10 days after I started this blog, so almost no one saw it. I think it’s one of the best posts I’ve ever written, and I don’t think I can do any better with the significance of images. The basic principle applies to every form of creative writing. It’s the best single piece of writing advice anyone has ever given me. This one thing took me from novice to journeyman in 16 weeks, and Dr. Berry was one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had the privilege of studying with. He cared.)