Making Sense

by Rob Gregory Browne

My wife and I have an ongoing, but
friendly, argument about which is more tolerable:  heat or cold.

I’m a cold guy.  My feeling is that no
matter how cold you get, you can always pile on more blankets until
you’re fairly comfortable.  With heat, however — real heat — you
can strip down to the altogether and still be friggin’ hot.

The hotter it gets, the more foul my
mood.  But with cold, not so much.

My wife is the exact opposite.  She
says that during winter, no matter how many blankets she piles on,
she’s still uncomfortable.  Her nose and fingers and toes are still
frozen and she hates that.

All that said, I guess it’s a good
thing we both grew up in Hawaii, where it never gets hotter than
about 85 degrees or colder than 60.

But when we were having this argument
the other day, I started thinking about the differences in people,
and it brought to mind something I read years ago about the five
senses and how each of us has a dominant sense.

Some of us might have an extremely
strong sense of smell, for example (like my wife),  while others
(like me) are very visual and can barely smell anything.  For some it
might be a keen sense of hearing, taste or touch.

What does any of this have to do with
reading or writing?

Maybe a lot.  When I write, I find that
I rarely talk about smell in a scene.  In fact, while working on this
new book, I’ve had to consciously force my character to think about
certain smells because it helped sell the scene.

Unlike visual details, adding in that
sense of smell didn’t come naturally to me.  It wasn’t something that
came out of the writing instinctively.  And I assume this is because
I rarely concern myself with smell in my real life.

So I have to wonder.  Are most writers
like this?  Are they led by their dominant traits?

Or what about readers?  Are they
attracted to books or scenes or characters that share their own
sensory preference?

So this is my question to you today.
What is your dominant sense, and do you find yourself favoring it in
your writing or reading?

And, hell, while we’re at it:  which do
you prefer — heat or cold?

20 thoughts on “Making Sense

  1. Jim Winter

    Gee, Rob, after walking down to the convention hotel in Madison with you and Bill Cameron shivering while Sandra Ruttan and I were comfortable in 48-degree temperatures with minimal outerwear, what do you think I prefer?

    Actually, though, this was not always the case. Before my 30th birthday, I absolutely hated the cold. And I grew up in Cleveland, where winter starts…

    Last week, I think, and lasts into April.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Heat. Definitely heat. Dry heat, though. I hate having to pile on clothes.

    I’m primarily a touch person, but I think “touch” doesn’t adequately describe that sense, because it’s more about FEELING. Physical sensation. Like, emotions are actual physical sensations. I also like the designation “kinetic” (as opposed to auditory or visual). But sound is huge for me, too – that’s why I’ve never understood online dating AT ALL. It’s the sound of a voice that tells me what I need to know about a person.

    Well, that and their smell. 😉

  3. Naomi

    I don’t know if you came across this in Hawaii, but the Japanese have special terms for those sensitive to heat (atsugari) and those sensitive to cold (samugari). There’s even cartoon characters available in sticker form!

    I’m with your wife–I’m a samugari.

    And in terms of senses, I do tend to integrate smells, sounds, and sometimes taste into my books. I guess because I write about different subcultures, smells and taste are pretty important. Most people come to a new culture through food.

  4. spyscribbler

    I’m aural. I write tons of dialogue, then I have to go back through and “see” everything, and then … I hope … I sometimes (but too rarely) get to the other senses.

    And you don’t understand! When it’s cold outside, it doesn’t matter how many blankets you pile on, your BONES are cold!

  5. Jacky B.

    I’ll take heat. Severe cold actually brings pain: ears, fingers, toes. Added to that, the chance of frostbite. When I first hit California it was 78 on Christmas eve. After 27 years of New York winters, I’d found my new home.

    I’m visual, and shift emphasis pretty easily, depending on what the scene or situation demands, but still try to keep all the senses involved. Why limit my available tools?

    Jacky B

  6. pari

    This New Mexican is a cold gal. Love to wear winter coats, mittens, weird hats. I was in heaven in Michigan during the blizzard that shut down the U of M for the first time in 116 years. Ahhhhh.

    I think I’m visually dominant in life, but aurally dominant in my writing. My first drafts are often almost completely dialog; that’s how I learn the story and get a handle on my characters — by the way they talk and express their ideas about the world around them.

    Now, that said, Sasha (my first protag) is definitely orally dominated.

  7. Louise Ure

    In Naomi’s parlance, I guess I’m “atsugari.” Too many Arizona summers to appreciate the heat much anymore.

    And a dominant sense? I think I’m a visual writer. But the new book, The Fault Tree, is written from the POV of a blind woman, so that was no help at all.

  8. billie

    I think I’m primarily visual; I’m so captivated by the quality of light and how it illuminates objects and space.

    That said, in my own memories, there are sensory details that while single, generate every other sense when I remember just the one.

    An example is a distinct memory I have of standing on a summer day inside the screen door to the house we lived in when I was young. I touched my tongue to the screen and it tasted slightly metallic and rusty. Just recalling that taste in my mouth brings back a whole wealth of childhood sense-memories. The light, the heat, the smells of summer, and the buzz of insects.

    I try to find those kinds of details in my writing that sort of blossom out for the reader even w/o me describing it all.

    As to heat or cold – I prefer the autumn when it’s just barely cool during the days and crisp at night. I like wearing sweaters and thick socks but not necessarily gloves and hats and coats.

  9. JT Ellison

    I’m definitely frigid. Wait, that didn’t come out right. I grew up in Colorado and love the warm fires, the bitter snap of ice, the creaking silence of snow covered evergreens. Plus, the beauty of being cold is getting someone to warm you up…

    As far as sensory details, I’m a fan. My first drafts are push through to get the story down, the second draft layers in the smells, sounds and feeling of the environment. I want to know these things from other writers too. Evoke me, baby.

  10. Tom Allen

    When chosing between the frigid author and the wife that like it warm, I’m going to side with the hot wife every time.In my writing, I also have a difficult time conveying a sense of smell and have to force it into my scenes. Taste is another challange for me if there is no food or drink involved.

  11. Michael Haskins

    Robert, I have to like the heat better, I grew up in Boston and had enough cold, so I moved to LA, but the smog was killing me, so I moved to Key West and love it! Especially in the summer! Smell is one of the reasons I love James Lee Burke’s books. You smell and taste his New Orleans. I try to capture the texture of smells and food and water in my writing, too, but Burke is the

  12. Elaine Flinn

    I’m with Victor.

    But I do miss those balmy days on Maui and Kaua’i. And early morning breakfast on the lanai at the Moana whilst the harpist surrounds us with etheral strains of… Oh,forget it. My hearts breaking already and I might start to cry.

    It’s raining today in Eugene. But it’s not cold. Yet.

  13. Bryon Quertermous

    Cold. Very cold. I like to ski in just ski pants and a t-shirt. I think it helps that my body temperature is about 5 degrees hotter than normal. This does not make my fiancee a fan of sleeping with me at night unless it’s REAL cold.

    And I’m a very aural person. In college I never took a single page of notes, if I heard it, it registered in my head. Of course that sucked when I didn’t make it to class on a regular basis. I’m also a visual person, but instead of large, detailed descriptive passages, I’m always looking for that one key detail that can totally set the scene.

  14. a Paperback Writer

    If I can’t have a nice, neutral temperature, than I’d rather have it too cold. As you said, you can always put more on, but with heat, you can’t peel off anything when you’re down to your skin and you’re still sweating like a pig and miserable.As for the sensory discussion, AL Kennedy discussed this very thing in one of several workshops I attended of hers. She claims she is not a visual person, but remembers people by her sense of smell, which means she likes to get close enough to sniff people to see if she remembers them. She says this is why her writing is not rich in visual details; to her, such details are unimportant.

  15. Jena

    I live in an 80-something-year-old cabin in Canada, and yeah, I’ll put my woollies on when it drops to -35 outside, but I’m with Paperback Writer — when you’re down to your skin and still hot, it’s no fun. If you’re cold, put on a sweater, eh?

    As for writing, I don’t “see” things in my head beyond brief memory snapshots. I can’t imagine what I *haven’t* seen, and I can’t hold a visual memory in my head long enough for it to do me much good. Dialogue comes easily for me because I can hear my characters speaking, but I have a kinetic sense of them too — I can imagine how it feels when they move. It might explain why, as an actor, I could get into a character’s skin, but as a director, I was hopeless.


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