Friday, June 2, 2023

Not Prompts—Sensory Cues! by Mary Ann Rodman

 The term “prompt” is not a favorite of writers. I know it’s not a favorite of students. I don’t know if “journal writing” is still used by teachers to keep students quiet while taking attendance. However, I’ve taught a whole generation of kids who wince at the words “prompt” and “journal” after years of having to expound on “my favorite fruit” and “what is a good friend” in a notebook that the teacher checked but never read. 

To me, “prompt” means you’ve lost your way and your memory needs nudging—like being prompted on stage. I prefer the term “cues”, but not just any cues, but sensory cues. 

Sensory cues are those aromas or textures that evoke particular emotions and memories. I keep a list of these cues. Here are a few of mine: Smells—honeysuckle, lime scented aftershave, mildew, baking bread or cookies. Textures—velvet, sand, grass, peanut butter, porcelain.

Let’s take peanut butter—which is on both of my lists. I imagine the mouthfeel of soft bread mixed with crunchy peanut butter (my favorite).  The smell of peanut butter recalls a twin aroma—that of the slightly soured milk smell of my vinyl Barbie lunchbox in second grade. Even though my thermos was washed every day, the scent of milk and peanut butter had absorbed into the soft sided vinyl. Oh, and that’s another cue —the sharp chemical smell of a new vinyl lunchbox or three-ring notebook. Suddenly, I’m back in my second grade classroom, with a cascade of cues: pencil shavings, chalk dust, hot asphalt (it was a new school and the parking lot was still being paved). This is followed by specific images, like Margaret who sat across the aisle. She wore her hair in long ringlets, wore periwinkle suede Hush Puppies and read nothing but Winnie-the-Pooh books the whole year. 

Whew! That was unexpected! See how that works? Sensory details are what makes writing come alive for me. So much of what we write in a first draft is what we see or hear. As a result my first draft often feels like a string of events—a lot of “and he went there and she said this.” It’s when I use my cues (NOT prompts), that my story picks up momentum. 

Suddenly, I want to write a second grade story. Hmmm—I wonder what happened to Margaret?

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman. 


Carmela Martino said...

What a terrific idea, MA! Thanks for sharing.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Boy, Mary Ann, once you said,"Even though my thermos was washed every day, the scent of milk and peanut butter had absorbed into the soft sided vinyl." All I could say was Yes, yes, YES! You had me there and my imagination galloped off!