The Sensual Writer
Listening vs. Hearing
“Are you listening to me?”
Can you “hear” the exasperation of the question? Or have you – no, how often have you – either heard or spoken these words?
Our next sense on the list is audition, or the ability to perceive sound. A vibration set off by a motion of some type passes through a natural medium such as air or water to flow across the incredibly complex design of the human ear. All creatures perceive these vibrations in unique ways and at different levels. And just like all of our senses, humans, as unique creatures, have the ability to pay attention to aspects of sensation, or the ability to tune them out. In the following 1668 painting, Allegory of Five Senses, by Gerard Lairesse, figures represent each of the five senses. Can you figure them out?
The layers of auditory stimuli can be broken down into being able to hear and then interpreting that sound. The farther from the origin of the initial motion starting the sound wave, the type of medium, and the amount of multi-tasking the human brain is carrying out at the time—and of course, the human’s decision whether or not to act on the stimulus.
Thus, the concept of listening is the next layer of sensation; the response to what was heard. All of this leads up to wonderful opportunities for your characters’ actions and reactions; even for using the lack of hearing as a character within a character. The deaf community has a “loud” campaign that declares being hearing-less is not a deficit but another way of life and shouldn’t be “corrected” since there is nothing wrong. Now—what kind of character chooses “life” over “living”?
Choosing to ignore noises, whether or not considered “polite”; as overhearing, either deliberate or accidental, can lead to all kinds of misinterpretation and subsequent mis/adventure. Where do gossip and prejudice begin? A wisp of a phrase, a car backfiring, a gasp, a scrape across a matchbook, the click of a gun’s chamber, a shriek all have multiple interpretations demanding any number of reactions based on your character’s purpose or past emotional or physical association with the sound.
If I hear sharp cracks in succession from next door, what should I do? My reactions, in order: I make an assumption regarding the sound – gunfire. My fight or flight response kicks in, helping me decide if there’s danger to me. I decide to look in the direction of the sound. I see my neighbor holding a gun near her horses. I know that she is a history buff, and unless she’s had a psychotic break, would never harm her animals. I watch from a safe distance. I deduce that she is training her horses to adapt to the sound of gunfire. I later learn that this is so, as her horses are used in Civil War reenactments. But what if I had been a combat veteran? Or brand new to the neighborhood and yet to meet anyone? What if I had been a victim of a crime involving a shooting? How would I react if I were timid, angry, a weapons buff, or an animal lover?
Train yourself to listen, that is, to hear and interpret, the sounds around you in different scenarios. Park yourself in a safe place and turn off as many of your other senses as possible. Be still and let the sound waves wash over you. Pick out one or two noises to focus on and try not to jump to conclusions. Define the sound as loud or soft, short or long, high or low. Inventory your response to the noise: what’s your first reaction? How does it make you feel? What does the sound make you want to do? Do you know or only think you know the source of the vibration that became your sound?
Secondly, practice this exercise with another person and compare notes. Did you react the same or different and talk about why.
Seeing, touching, and now hearing, any activity creates both inner and outer responses based much upon experience. How you build that experience for your reader depends much upon your own ability to interpret your world. If you should “write what you know,” then learn all you can!
Excerpt from my upcoming cozy mystery, Message of Mayhem, with three senses layered in:
“Ivy!” Martha Robbins called to me from her stoop next door. I stopped at the end of the driveway, still facing the orange glow on the horizon. “Do you know what’s going on?”
Her kids huddle with her in a waffle-textured wool blanket. “Dale was called to the station, but he didn’t say where the fire was.”
“At True’s store,” I ground out. “I have to go.”
“Oh, Ivy. I’m so…” Her voice faded as I started to jog. Two blocks later I slowed to a very fast walk. I realized that loafers were a poor choice of footwear and I slowed to a very fast walk. The evening was still plenty warm and I was...glowing. Soon I slowed as I met up with throngs of people who gathered to watch and wait for news.
I headed toward the alley behind True’s place only to find the entrance taped off. A squad car, lights stabbing the night, sat empty, close by, as Officer Larken spoke to people a few feet away. I moved in their direction, dodging sightseers. A spray of water arced high over the building, which stood sooty but intact, billowing black smoke from broken windows and vents. At least any flames appeared to be out.
“Officer! Officer Larken! Where’s True?”
“Miss Preston. Good eve—”
“It is not!” I snapped. “I need to know what’s happening. How bad is it? Where’s Mr. Thompson?”
“Here, Ivy. I’m here!”
“Oh, thank you, Lord, thank you!” I rushed to him. “I was so worried. I just ran. Are you all right?” I cupped his face in my hands. “How bad is it?”
“The fire burned mostly upstairs, my apartment. The firefighters did a good job. Lots of smoke damage, and of course, water damage. I don’t know about the store stock, but I wouldn’t be surprised if—” He had to stop to catch his breath. The front of his shirt wiggled.
“Isis. Oh, baby.” He opened the edges of his vest so I could see her. I had not even felt her when I had grabbed True so roughly. I reached my hand out to stroke between her ears. “She’s safe, oh, she’s safe.” Isis had no intention of letting True go. She even nipped at me, which I would have done too, under similar circumstances, but I did back off.
“She was already outside,” True said. “She wouldn’t let anyone grab her, but came to me when she saw me.”
“I wonder how she got out?”
I was exhausted, as if I had been fighting the fire myself. Smoke hung heavy, everywhere, blotting out some figures and creating other images that wafted, ethereal.
Officer Larken got on the microphone. “Go home, now. We don’t want anyone developing breathing problems.”
“Why don’t you stay with my wife and me?” Hanley offered. “Our son’s gone for the weekend, a camp outing, so you can use his room. In the morning, we’ll figure out what to do.”
Cal Stewart dashed up. Just in time to save the day, I thought sourly. The third musketeer in this strange little web. Stop it, Ivy! You’re just tired.
“Hey! What’s going on?” Stewart asked.
Apparently the quality of the conversation, like the smoky air, was not about to improve any time soon.
“Thompson’s coming home with me tonight,” Hanley told him. “Why don’t you stop in for a while, too?”
“Uh, okay. Sure.” Stewart said.
“Can I drop you off at home, Ivy?” Hanley asked. True looked at me intently, as if willing me to do something. But what?
“No thanks. I walked here. I’ll just walk back. Clear my head. Good exercise.” True nodded ever so faintly, so I had guessed the right answer. Goody for me.
“Can you take Isis for me?” True asked. “She knows you and you have food and supplies.”
“Sure. Fine.” True came close, transferring the uncooperative feline from inside of his vest to me. She settled in, dug her claws in enough to make me wince and growled low, just to make sure we knew she was upset.
“Don’t believe everything you see,” True whispered, while he kissed me on the cheek, his touch lingering in my hair.