Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Taking Leave of One's Senses

James Castle was born in rural Idaho in September 1899. His birth was two months early and he was born completely deaf, yet James became a ground-breaking artist and his works are now collectable around the world.

James’ parents ran a post office and general store and James filled his childhood with drawing done on offcuts of used envelopes, discarded packaging and even on the back of his sister’s homework. It was his way of expressing himself and, although he had no exposure to the art world, his expression and ability matched the progression of famous art and ran parallel to Picasso's style.

Around ten years of age he was sent to a school for the deaf and blind, and lived there for five years. The punishment for not learning the deaf-signing and voice control lessons was to be smacked on the hands with a ruler and to have all personal possessions removed, including drawing gear.

Undeterred, James used sharpened sticks, soot and spit to write on any rubbish he could find so he could to express himself. He refused to learn to sign or speak and died in 1977 with boxes and boxes of his art around him that were pure expressions of his world through his eyes.

James Castle lived in a silent world and he’s made me wonder if I would write differently if stopped using all my senses.

Last night I went to a restaurant. When I walked in, I smelt the inevitable smoke that hung outside the door where people have to do that now. I saw people sitting, standing, finding tables, ordering food. I heard music, chatter, doors, cutlery on plates.

Then, I remembered James Castle. What would he have experienced in the restaurant? I couldn’t easily turn my ears off, so I closed my eyes and, suddenly, I smelt onions... and beef; I heard individual voices, but many of them; I felt the cold of the table, even though I’d not noticed it when my eyes were open before.

It seemed that my other senses had filled the gap of my sight and changed how my mind focussed on the scene. I wondered if this could deepen my writing too.

James Castle laid each of his pictures before us and let us imagine the words. Writers lay out words for the reader to get the picture so they can visualise the story. And actors speak the dialogue, and their actions give us the narrative.

Tonight on TV, someone described Kevin Spacey’s acting as: 'it’s so good, it never seems like he's acting'. For me, I want to learn to write so well that readers forget they're reading. I want them to close the book and wake in the morning not remembering if they’ve read the story in a book or if they’ve seen it as a movie.


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  2. Thanks Jackie for an inspiring post!This is reminiscent of the call to die to self so we can live for Christ. We need to block out the world's voice to be able to hear the spiritual voice of our Father. Surely our aim as Christian writers is to express the heart of the Father through stories. The Bible calls them parables, stories so profoundly expressed that two thousand years later they still speak. Oh, to be able to pour His words into stories that leave the reader with a deepened relationship with our Lord!

  3. Thanks Jackie,
    That got me thinking differently about my writing, does it evoke all the senses?
    Jennifer Ann

  4. Hi Jackie, I love your aim in the final paragraph and it's one I share. I love how embellishing our writing with all five senses, not in great blocks but in subtle ways here and there, can help do just that. We can be artists with words just as James Castle was with his pencils and bits of charcoal.Thanks for sharing his story. It appealed to the homeschooler in me, too.
    Being a homeschooling mum, I'd like to find out more about your children's historical fiction too.

  5. Whow! Thankyou Jackie!
    I loved your post, I loved your story & it made me want to read more about this guy!
    I'm new to writing but I'm being really encouraged each time I read someones post!
    Thankyou everyone for your great articles

  6. The richness of the world is only ours when we take the time to feel, smell, see, hear and taste it. Thanks for the reminder to push our writing so our readers have access to the richness we are trying to convey.

  7. I like the idea of readers forgetting they are reading. That's how it was for me, as a child, walking home reading. My mother's friends would ask her if she was worried I'd fall or walk in front of a car... it's a miracle I didn't really. I don't remember walking, but I do remember the worlds I disappeared into.
    Oh and I still read obsessively but not when I am walking. I now give nature the respect it is due and soak myself in it when I walk.

  8. Thanks Jackie, and you drew a great picture in my mind just through writing that post. Yes, I want people to feel like they are part of the story, not just reading words, as well. Thanks. :)

  9. Inspirational thoughts... I tried it as well, closed my eyes and heard so much more... And then I looked up the artist and found the following sources showing his paintings. In case you are interested to have a look: (1) Museum of Modern Art at New York @ - and some more at the Art Institute of Chicago @ - I wonder what your reaction will be when you see them. Thanks for the article, Jackie.

  10. Thanks, Jackie for your reminder. It's important for writers to remember to be sensitive to their environment at all times so that the creative well can be filled.

  11. I looked up James Castle's work also. Some of it primitive and some amazing detail. For me most had a lonely feel to it. So yes, if a sketch can to do that, how much more can words evoke our senses. I know they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so our challenge is to write visually!

  12. Jackie, fascinating post! I love becoming so involved in a story that I forget I'm reading and feel like I'm there living the story with the characters :)

  13. I know what it like to have to use other senses. Twice i have had to be blindfolded, this was to understand some of the deaf/blind children we were going to be looking after. Not all were blind, but you do realise how much you use your other senses, but would i have understood all that if i hadn't had that sense of sight to start out with.

  14. I read once that Jeffrey Deaver writes some of his scenes with his eyes shut. I tried it and found that for me it works. Usually I write to music which inspires a particular scene too. For instance, writing a battle scene I listened to Requiem for a Dream (Lux Aeterna). I could picture the scene perfectly.

    I think too many people don't rely on all their senses, we tend to see things in one dimension.

    Great post. :)