I used to be afraid of bats. I don’t know why. I’d never found one roosting in my attic or even seen one from afar. Maybe it was because they hang upside down (why?) or skulk about in the dark. Then an article in my alumni magazine began to change my perception of these small flying mammals, and the Little Brown Bat gave me an idea for a new sensory writing exercise.
Bats navigate using a sixth sense called echolocation, a kind of built-in sonar system. A bat will send a high-pitched sound wave, far too high for humans to detect, which bounces off objects in the environment. The bat can determine the distance, shape, and speed of that object based on how quickly the sound wave returns to its ears. It doesn’t need to see or touch the object to get any additional information. If that object is a tasty moth, the bat is on it in seconds, even though the moth is a more adept flier.*
I decided to expand my newfound appreciation by going on a bat walk in Central Park. A small group of us met on a footbridge at dusk guided by scientists from the American Museum of Natural History. We watched the surface of the pond for any bats that might leave their roost under the bridge but nothing. I squinted and stared intently at one fixed spot, hoping a bat would move through my field of vision. I didn’t know for sure they were there.
Luckily the scientists had brought technology with them—a device that converted the high pitch echolocation waves to a frequency we can hear. And suddenly bats were all around us, their signals pulsing like bird chirps faster or slower as their navigated around trees and us. When they zeroed in on an insect, the chirps became one continuous sound until they caught their prey. Then silence for a few beats until they moved on. They were using an ability I don’t have and cannot fully appreciate.
See it to believe it
The bats reminded me that just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Of course we know this, but we often forget it in our writing.
We humans rely so heavily on sight that it’s easy to undervalue the other senses. Or maybe not undervalue them, but certainly relegate them in importance. On the page, we translate events as we see them in our mind’s eye: the school bus pulls up to the stop, the doors open, little Janie hops down the steps to the ground. What about the squeal of the brakes? The smell of exhaust fumes? The grit of gravel between your teeth as the bus kicks up the dusty road?
If, like me, you have to be reminded to utilize all of your senses in your stories, consider yourself reminded! And if you need a little practice, try keeping a Sensory Journal.
Carry a small notebook with you. (You can also use your phone, but I find paper and pen is the best method.) As you go through your day, record anything that excites your senses other than sight: touch, taste, smell, sound. Close your eyes if you can and let your other senses take over for a moment. It can be a few words to a few sentences — just be sure to capture it in the moment rather than waiting until later. Aim for at least three entries each day.
This exercise helps reconnect you with all of your senses and will encourage you to look for opportunities to incorporate these types of sensory descriptions in your story.
*For those of you who are curious…some species of moths have evolved a way to “jam” a bat’s echolocation frequency. This confuses the bat for a few seconds, just long enough for the moth to evade capture.
- I’ve been catching up on a few podcasts and here are two that I’ve found interesting:
- Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell Each episode focuses on a person, place or event from the past and examines if the story we tell ourselves about it is the right one.
- Undiscovered This show combines science, history, and storytelling to dig into the backstories of science. Did you know Kurt Vonnegut’s brother was a top scientist researching ways (some good and some not so good) to control the weather? Kurt wrote several stories around this theme.
- Have you read a book and came to a very different conclusion than most other reviewers? I recently had that experience when writing a book review for Anna and the Swallow Man, a YA novel set in 1939 Krakow. Many folks on Goodreads did not connect with this story. “Seriously, I don’t get this book.” “This book is confused.” One reviewer said that it left her “ultimately very frustrated.” I think they were reading the events of the story in a literal sense, but I thought the story was an allegory. Here is my review on Goodreads. If so many readers misinterpret the author’s intention, is that on the author or the reader? Let me know what you think.
- I’ve been working hard to create my new online class: Writing About Place: Five Days to Immersive Setting. The class is going to be a deep dive into writing about setting, which applies to fiction and narrative nonfiction alike. In five days, we’ll cover all the important details and you’ll get helpful, personal exercises. If you (or someone you know) are interested, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be opening registration to newsletter subscribers first.