Working Review: Forest for the Trees

By way of explaining why I chose this month’s writing prompt, I must offer an awkward confession of personal behavior quirks: sometimes, I like to blindfold myself while I write. This is marginally less weird than it sounds. It works on the same principle as timed writing, which is that you don’t give yourself the opportunity to become distracted. I could, of course, sit at the computer in the dark for quite a long time. I have, in fact, been known to fall asleep in my office chair while engaged in a particularly intense bout of procrastination.

But with that blindfold (a bandana folded into a strip of appropriate width) over my eyes, I have a physical reminder that I have something important to do, a sensation to keep my mind on the task at hand. It also blocks out visual distractions, which are the first things on which my mind alights for diversion: oh, look, my bed needs making; goodness, look at the time, I’ve been here for at least an hour without a snack; gosh, that Solitaire icon looks lonely, I’ll just click on it this once. And it is staggeringly hard to edit myself when I can’t see the screen. The time lost to correcting typos afterward is well worth the burst of uninterrupted writing I achieve while blind.

Additionally, the subject of voluntary blindness is very much on my mind at the moment because of a story idea that is currently haunting me. Codenamed Blind Wolf, it centers on a person (this is an idea in progress, so please forgive the lack of gender certainty, as I have yet to finalize much of anything about it) whose gaze causes the things this person sees to warp and become monstrous. For this person’s own safety as much as for that of the greater population, blindfolding it becomes necessary to keep the power under control. The how and why of the story are beyond the scope of this article and are also far from fully developed, but suffice to say that the experience of being abruptly blind is currently of great interest to me.

Given all this, it should be no surprise that this month’s prompt caught my fancy. The book is Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises From Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis, and the article is John Smolens’s “Be the Tree.” (Tangentially, this title always makes me think of the Saturday morning commercial from something like the Arbor Day Foundation, in which a young girl says, with great conviction, “If you just get out there and see that tree, you can actually be that tree.” I really hope she continues to believe in this statement, as it will mean she grows up to be a delightfully unusual young woman.)

Smolens describes his variation on found object studies, in which pairs of students explore an outdoor location. One student wears a blindfold and explores rocks, trees, puddles, etc. under the guidance of their partner, who silently directs them to targets. After everyone has had a chance, they return to the classroom to write about the experience. According to Smolens, students often write these piece from the perspective of the object they explored, hence the title of the article.

Now, the exercise at the end of the article only asks you to write a 500 word passage using sensory detail, so long as it is not sight-based. I cannot imagine, however, how anyone could read his description of this truly excellent field trip and then just jump straight into writing without trying it out. I certainly cannot resist. So I will be spending some time today exploring my home, inside and out, while blindfolded and I will return with writing. (I would be happy to follow his advice to go somewhere unfamiliar, but since I lack the validation that comes from being part of a large group, I will not risk arrest or institutionalization by wandering around the nearest park while wearing a blindfold.)

I will do things a little out of order this time, as I would like to get my impressions of the physical exercise down before I move on to the written exercise. This was made possible by my mother, who graciously agreed to chaperone me while I explored. The weather is warm right now and while I am willing to do many things for my art, getting bitten by a rattlesnake in my backyard is not one of them. She took to the task with, if not enthusiasm, at least devotion and guided me through the backyard and the garden therein.

But first, I started inside the house. The first thing I really noticed was the wet sound of zucchini being grated into spaghetti sauce. It was, frankly, a revolting sound, but that might be my prejudice against zucchini coming through. The second thing I noticed was that all of my usual entertainment methods are at least partially visual: reading, video games, television. Knitting might have been possible, but sewing was right out. I languished.

Then my brain slowed down long enough to start noticing things. The fan in the kitchen rattles and the constant background noise it produces is infuriating when I try to focus in on something else. My parents, both in the house at the time, have vastly different styles of moving. I knew I could tell them apart by their footfalls, but that was when they were wearing boots and at a distance. Up close, I discovered that my mother stomps everywhere and moves with such force and energy, I can actually feel her passing as a wave of displaced air. Meanwhile, my father wears slippers in the house and shuffles, so it is impossible to track his movements. Then he holds still for so long that I forget where he is. When he moves again, I am startled to realize he is right beside me.

Hearing was useful, but smell did little to help me. I found that I could discern general changes in smell, such as the difference between the kitchen and the yard. But I did not navigate by smell, I did not experience any amazing food revelations (even good quality dark chocolate hardly smelled like anything) and I did not recognize my family by their scents. There is, however, a possibility that this can be attributed to the fact that the whole house smells vaguely of my dog and cat, thereby drowning out most other information more subtle than garlic or bleach.

Taste was largely irrelevant and I restrained myself from, say, tasting the pine tree in the yard to see what it was like. But I did find that, when I tried to get a drink of water, there was a moment of anticipation as the liquid hit my mouth wherein I wondered if I had chosen the right bottle. Would I get water or iced tea? Had my feeling around in the fridge and my memory of the layout betrayed me? Also, in the garden, I was treated to the taste of nasturtium nectar, surprising and sweet and flavorful. The last time I tried drinking nectar from the pipette of the flower, I got an ant instead. Ants are spicy and unpleasant, particularly alive. No thank you. But this flower was amazing.

Most of all, I experienced the world through touch. Open spaces (available outside but in short supply in my tiny home) made me nervous. I felt most comfortable when I could move from chair back to wall to door frame. Outside, my fingers brushed over each plant in turn. Unripe apples and furry peaches, the size of your thumb, seemed fragile and precious. Every time I touched them, I feared I would, in my clumsiness, knock them from the tree. Tree bark felt so sharp and thin, I expected it to cut my hands. And, predictably, I barked my knees against several flower pots on the way.

I am sure I looked quite the fool. Once I got my bearings, I could move with relative ease as I kept my left hand outstretched to search for obstacles and touch points and my head cocked as I tracked people by the sounds they made. I felt an initial discomfort and almost frantic need to match what I heard and felt to my mental picture of familiar places. But that passed and it all started to feel natural. I stopped noticing the play of light and dark beyond my eyelids and noticed air temperature instead. I stopped trying to think logically of what the small apple tree looked like and just let my hands follow the trunk and branches. I did not move as quickly, but I concentrated more. Yet my mind raced less. There was not a lot of room for random worries when I needed to concentrate on getting across the room.

For the written exercise, I’m going to use the story fragment I have in mind at the moment. The Blind Wolf story will involve travel and hiding out in strange places, so it is a good framework in which to have someone explore an unfamiliar space. Though I am reserving all judgments for the project, I will have to choose a gender for the sake of this passage or we will all be tearing our hair out as I try to contort myself around neutral sentences. So, for simplicity’s sake, it is a woman who is blindfolded and exploring an interior space more or less at her leisure and while she cannot see at the moment, she is previously familiar with modern housing.

Steel chilled her fingers. Knobs and handles lined up in her mind with kitchen. Eventually, her fingers skittered over the edge of the counter and into the basin of a sink. That boded ill, because questing hands should not be left unattended in the presence of knives. A leap of faith through empty space brought her hand to the edge of a doorway. No actual door there though, she discovered as she ran her hands around the edges in search of hinges.

Beyond the door, there was nothing to hold onto, so she stretched out her left foot and swept it along the ground. A soft shushing noise told her the kitchen tile yielded to carpet beyond that point. She stepped forward to where her left foot was. Another sweep and another step brought her to something solid that thunked, hollow and wooden, when her foot connected with it. She had to reach down to find it. Polished smooth and slightly greasy. She brought her fingers to her nose: wood polish.

She kept her hand on the edge of the end table and skirted around it. Right where she expected it, her other hand touched cool leather with deep wrinkles worked into it at the sides. Her hand made it rotate side to side. She pulled back on it and it gave with a rough metal sound. A leather recliner, next to an end table, told her she had found a living room.

She made her way to the front of the recliner and dropped to her knees. A living room might have a television and, if it did, the recliner would face it. On her knees, she inched forward, hand outstretched. Up close, the carpet smelled strongly of dog. Her nails pinged against glass. She followed the curve it formed and felt plastic, warmer and more yielding than glass, surrounding it. An old television with — she brought her hand down the side and toward the middle, where little nubs lined up — push button controls on the front panel.

Now she had to guess, so she pressed the first button on the right and waited. Nothing happened. Don’t assume the power is still off, she thought. Find the volume first. Her fingers skipped over two buttons, which she hoped were channel up and down controls, and pressed the fourth one along. Slowly, as she held the button down, sound rose. The speakers vibrated near her hand and the hair on the back of it stood up as the screen picked up a charge.

She turned the volume down to the ideal point for listening at close range. Then she settled back onto her butt to listen as a man’s voice announced the weather report. She braced her hands behind her on the floor. The carpet was thick enough to sink her fingers into it, but scratchy. Her palm came away with long, coarse dog hairs stuck to it. Over the sound of the weatherman, she heard an electronic ding from a microwave. Good. She was starving.

Published by Joyce Sully

Joyce Sully believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real. So she writes stories. Really, what else could she do?