Even before a lyric is spoken there’s a visible reaction in my friends. The opening song of Hamilton ekes out of the worst sound system possible, my friend’s iPhone flipped up on the table between the three of us. Suddenly the random nothingness that we were engaged with stops. Despite the terrible, slightly tinny sound there’s power in those opening notes. It compels us to stop and then invites us to sing along.
The sensation of that moment was palpable. Relegate it as a fad or passing fancy if you must, but that opening two seconds of music siren-called us into another world. What writer can’t admit to wanting that ability to, with a single piece of work, command that much power?
Over 25 years ago I decided to become a writer. Books have always been important to me. The idea that writers could make black marks on white pieces of paper and it would have an emotional, intellectual, and physical sway over their reader was fascinating to me. When I became serious about my writing, I embarked on a journey of truly understanding sensations. It seemed appropriate to me then to entitle my Sunday column “Sunday Sensations” as a tribute not only to my journey in writing, but a reminder to myself of the nine-year-old girl tucked up in the corner of a room thoroughly wrapped up in a book.
“Show. Don’t tell.” This is a mantra countless writing teachers droned at me throughout the years. Yet, sensations squirm away from me, unwilling to be pinned down. Often, I think it’s sheer desperation that allows me to hit on how to describe something in a way that will impact a reader. Writing sensations require much thought and the ability to see outside oneself. This is the task of the writer.
So, there I sit trying to compel the magic that has entranced me for years. There’s the soft scratch of my puppy’s nails on our wood floor, but that’s not something everyone has heard. How do you describe that? Where would you start? Cliches come to the front of the mind first, but must be systematically rejected. Next, you try to think of new cliches. Those seem even worse than the tried and true cliches. At this point, you’re wishing that there was never a puppy to describe at all, much less the problem of the sound of its nails.
You turn to music, poetry, art (or possibly watch three hours of infomercials) just to find the right words. Two or three times you think you get there, but reject all attempts ultimately. There’s a vexing frustration that roils and boils. Yet, you press on, determined to describe that sound in a way that invokes emotion in the part of your reader whether they like it or not. The thesaurus and dictionary are consulted and come up dry. You spend more time than you’d like to admit on Facebook. Every life decision that has lead you to this point is reconsidered.
And then, inspiration strikes. The words flow, the description is made and all is peace, joy and harmony once more.
Until the next scene.
That’s the funny thing about the things we often call magic. Movie magic, book magic, or even the magic of the way your favorite shampoo makes your hair feel — they are actually a lot of hard work wrapped into a single, effortless-looking package. So maybe that’s where the magic comes in, where us music-makers and dreamers of the dream make all that work looks so easy. From a musical like Hamilton to my next blog post, we’re all searching for that ever-elusive sensation that will thrill and delight our audience. Here’s to hard work and here’s to finding it.
About the author: Tabitha Grace Challis
Tabitha is a social media strategist, writer, blogger, and professional geek. Among her published works are the children’s books Jack the Kitten is Very Brave and Machu the Cat is Very Hungry, both published under the name Tabitha Grace Smith. A California girl (always and forever) she now lives in Maryland with her husband, son, and a collection of cats, dogs, and chickens. Find out more about her on her Amazon author page or follow her on Twitter: @Tabz.