It was the start of my second year in the undergraduate creative writing program at Concordia University, and I was feeling refreshed. Ready to take my craft by the horns. I had spent the summer purging myself of all the problems my first-year fiction instructor had pointed out in my work: my habit of making characters fall in love in springtime and out of love in a post-New Year, Montreal-style winter; naming all secondary male characters “Adam,” and imbuing these Adams with vaguely biblical qualities; etc.
I had built up stamina over the summer, so imagine my delight when my second-year fiction instructor, an accomplished and quirky visiting writer named Peter Such, told the class we would each write 60 pages of a novel under his mentorship. He dictated no rules or structure, and I churned it all out in the first month. I really wanted to impress him. One day after class, Peter asked me to stay behind. Naturally, I was hoping he would say something positive about my work (I’ve sent your 60 pages to every literary agent in North America!). He did, he said I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and then he posed a question whose answer was so shockingly obvious that I felt embarrassed for not having come to it on my own, especially after my summer of intense writing practice:
“April, why do none of your characters ever experience taste or smell?”
The truth is, I haven’t experienced a new flavor or odour since December 12, 1995, the day I ran across an intersection at the same time as a motorist sped through the yellow light. It didn’t end optimally for me, as you can imagine, but after five months in hospital and rehabilitative care, I found my footing and moved on—without the trusted companionship of my gustatory and olfactory senses. And while I had focused, post-accident, on all the real-life ways this loss affected me (I was now susceptible to food that was “off” enough to make me violently ill, for example), I hadn’t begun to tap into the ways my unconsciousness—the writer’s dreamscape—was also being affected.
“The truth is, I haven’t experienced a new flavor or odour since December 12, 1995, the day I ran across an intersection at the same time as a motorist sped through the yellow light.”
When we write fiction, we empower our characters with human qualities. Often, this isn’t a difficult task; by impulse so subtle it’s more like instinct, we continuously assign our own sensory experiences to our characters, whether it’s because we haven’t yet learned enough about a developing character to know what his/her/their/its individual experience is like, or because we’ve been so marked by a particular sensation that we’re compelled to write about it until we get it right. In my case, my reaction to Peter’s question was the beginning of my understanding of how experience—and lack thereof—shapes whom and what we create in fiction. “How can I write about a lover’s scent if I can’t smell? Maybe it’s totally foul! How in hell would I know?”
“By impulse so subtle it’s more like instinct, we continuously assign our own sensory experiences to our characters.”
I was pissed at my instructor. It wasn’t because I’d been covering up my still relatively new deficit; it was because Peter had, very kindly, presented me with a writing challenge that I had internalized as a handicap. So many of the aftereffects from the car accident were and always would be preventing me from doing certain things (like driving a car, due to my loss of peripheral vision in both eyes), and I had imported that resignation into my writing.
When I complained about not being able to describe things I hadn’t experienced (and isn’t this every writer’s Achilles’ heel?), Peter said, “Then describe the things you know.” When I claimed that all I knew was boring, he said, “Then make it interesting. It’s your job, after all. This is what being a writer is about.” Finally, I got over myself. Finally, I heard what Peter was saying: My “deficits” were also assets, constant reminders that just because we cannot experience something in this realm, it doesn’t mean we’re off the hook in terms of finding ways for our readers to experience it in that place of dream we go to when we settle in with a book we love. I wrote my first novel that year. It was gaudy and embarrassing the way our earliest works often are, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve kept writing.
April Ford’s fiction has appeared in Grain, New Madrid, SAND, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. Her story “Project Fumarase” is featured in the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology. Her debut story collection, The Poor Children, was released worldwide in 2015 by SFWP, and her debut novel, Carousel, is forthcoming in 2019 with Inanna Publications. April has spent time at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts as a Robert Johnson Fellow, and at Ucross Foundation as a Writer in Residence. She lives in Montreal and is Associate Publisher of SFK Press in Atlanta, Georgia. www.aprilfordauthor.com
Photo credits: Flickr (top banner); Antonella Fratino (headshot)