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The Memory's "Ears": Do You Hear What I Hear?

A good writer must cultivate acute observational skills, and that not only of the eyes, although that certainly is important, but also of the ear and the nose and the fingertips. Then he or she must be able to transform those sensations into words that prompt the reader to see, hear, smell, and feel the same sensations the writer experienced.

The importance of a good ear was recently re-impressed on me as I thought back to my childhood and a certain sound I sometimes heard.

My grandfather had an International Harvester Farmall Model H tractor, which I quite often heard as he used it for various tasks around the farm. It sort of "purred," as some Farmall aficionados call that distinctive sound. I seem to recall it as more of a gurgle, especially when it was idling.

Rather, my mind's ear heard what was a less frequent sound in our neighborhood, a sort of putt-putt-putt-putt. As my mind echoed the sound memory, it also flashed a bright green-and-yellow visual image before me. The sound came from the other side of the hilltop at my grandfather's driveway, and I soon "saw" its source slowly top the hill. A John Deere Model G. (I later learned that the experts call its distinctive sound a "popping"; hence, the John Deere's nickname of "poppin' Johnny.")

It was rare to hear that sound in our neighborhood. Other than my grandfather's Farmall, the only other tractor sound around was that of Mr. Coomer's orange Case. I don't remember how it sounded, but I can still "see" him driving it, pipe clenched in his teeth, across his fields. I don't recall who the John Deere belonged to. Probably someone from another community who came to help Mr. Coomer with some farm task that required a second tractor. But I can still see it and hear it these many decades later.

As I recalled that sound, I caught myself trying to replicate it. Then, to doublecheck both my memory and my mimicry, I "googled" the subject, and I found a plethora of audio and video examples. And, lo and behold! The sound was exactly as I remembered it!

That made me recall a similar incident years earlier. For one writing project, I needed to know the make and model of an old truck like the one my Uncle Dillon had used in his well-drilling business. I texted my brother, and right away he replied with the answer. He followed that reply with a question of his own.

"Do you remember the sound you used to make with your mouth when we were kids and playing trucks? It sounded just like Uncle Dillon's truck starting up."

I had not "heard" (or made) that sound in several decades, but it suddenly rushed into my mind's "ears." I rose from my office desk (I was still working in an open-office environment at the time) and looked around furtively to see if anyone else was present. The office was still dark, except for my desk area, the other employees not having yet arrived. I sat down and replicated the sound to which my brother referred. Then I laughed aloud. For the joy of such memories. For thankfulness that no one was around to witness my momentary return to childhood.

When I was a kid, I had no idea that I would ever need to use those sounds, especially not in writing. But I was observant (although some people surely thought I was oblivious) and stored those sounds in my memory bank. At just the right moment, they resurfaced.

Jesse Stuart was once interviewed by a young, aspiring writer. Realizing that the young man was not "getting" his verbal points about the importance of close observation, he took him on a little "field trip" to a local old-time hardware/feed-and-seed store. As the interviewer walked quickly through the old store, Stuart told him to stop and observe through his senses.

"Listen to the floors. Hear that pop, that creak? Do you smell the various odors--the oils on the floor, the seeds and fertilizers, the leather goods?"

That is what it means to observe with all your senses. Store in your memory bank what you see, hear, smell, and feel. One day, you'll be working on a writing project and need those small "deposits," which are really investments. And they will give a good return in the form of a vivid verbal rendering of the sensations you want to communicate. Your reader will see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. And then you will know that your writing has been successful.

What is your memory bank hearing today? Write about it! Let us "hear" it, too.

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