Turning an Opportunity for Violence into a Writing Exercise
Certain sounds, smells, and tastes are difficult to articulate on the page. How can you describe the smell of a baked apple pie in an innovative way? How can you even begin to conjure the noise of a battlefield? How can you explain the feeling of aluminum foil on your teeth without using the word metallic? As writers, we struggle to isolate the perfect image or phrase that immediately elicits an undeniably visceral reaction in our readers.
And, as neighbors, we struggle not to murder the fucker upstairs.
Two things I should state, for the record, before I get started. First, I grew up on a horse farm that was so remote, I had to leave school dances an hour early to get home by curfew. Our nearest neighbor was about half-a-mile away and if a car drove down the road (not just our driveway, but the freaking road itself) we immediately heard it and went running to look. Our farm was quiet enough that when I swung on my jungle gym in the backyard, I could hear Ronnie Milsap sing a song about being almost like a song on the radio my father kept in the barn two hundred yards away.
Second, my old man had a Fall of the House of Usher-like aversion to noise. At times, the old farm house seemed to conspire against me and plan ways for me to get in trouble. Hundred-year-old hardwood floors missing most of the nails? Yeah, try walking across them without making a sound. Rusty screen doors that close with a noise like a metal file on a blackboard? Explode through that doorway because the Bat Signal urgently beckons you into the backyard to save Gotham and see what it sounds like.
To survive in the minefield of sounds that was my old farmhouse, I learned the ways of the ninja. Kwai Chang Caine couldn’t walk across rice paper as delicately as I could glide across those creaky hardwood floors. No one ever called me “Grasshopper” and we sure as hell didn’t know nothing about Shaolin temples in rural Kentucky, but I eventually learned how to move with the silence of a mime.
All of which drives me to the edge of madness when my upstairs neighbor moves furniture in the middle of the night. Instead of giving peace a chance, I decided to give description a chance.
My apartment building has hardwood floors. Not the old, splintery, creaky, original kind, but rather the new, snap-together, fake wood kind. There’s a fair amount of substance in between floors, but not nearly enough, as my pacing and stomping neighbor has so painfully illustrated to me.
Although the sounds of his moving furniture are loud, it’s still a bit muffled, like a stereo without enough treble, or like screaming into a pillow. Every time it gets quiet and I think he’s given up his Mayflower Transit job training exercise, it begins again. I believe the noises would be more tolerable if there weren’t that ineffective muffling. Instead of truly dampening the sound, the muffling puts it at just the right pitch to be annoying as hell.
I’ve sat here all night trying to do justice to this sound. It’s a task that really challenges my meager writing skills. What sounds trouble you in your writing? Is there a smell that you can never capture on your pages? An elusive taste or a fleeting sensation? What is the hardest thing for you to describe?
I’ll tell you one final thing… I might have grown up in the quiet countryside, and I might have learned to move without disturbing a butterfly, and I might struggle to sharply convey the noises that I’m hearing. But if he doesn’t cut that shit out, or if I don’t put in some earplugs, then I’ll be reminded of just how easy it is to describe the sound a 12 gauge shotgun.