The holidays were quiet and sweet this year. No cross-country flights from mobbed airports to the frigid East Coast. Instead I spent Thanksgiving in the Bay Area with my second cousins--family, just far enough removed to eliminate angst. Christmas and New Year with friends.

And reading good books. One of my favorites was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Recommended by two of my students, both of whom are bright and excellent writers, it seemed worthy of a few winter nights. It was. Not only does it have very short chapters (a plus), the author writes from the senses, so I truly felt I was in each scene.

For example, when a pamphlet floats in through a Paris window, a blind girl “holds it to her nose. It smells of fresh ink. Gasoline, maybe. The paper is crisp; it has not been outside long.” Rather than tell us she is blind, the author writes “Marie-Laure LeBlanc stands alone in her bedroom smelling a leaflet she cannot read.”

Doerr is equally deft in writing about other senses, such as touch: “The breast feathers of a stuffed and mounted chickadee are impossibly soft, its beak as sharp as a needle.”

And sound: “She can hear snowflakes tick and patter through the trees.”

In another chapter, he describes sound with a touch metaphor. “His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”

When I read, I mark sentences I like with post-its, so that I can use the examples with my writing students. All the Light We Cannot See was well-decorated with red and yellow tabs.

Writing exercise:

Go back over a piece you’ve written and see what sensory images and details you can add.

Copyright © 2014 by Laura Deutsch

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