Four ways to become a carnal writer

What does carnal mean?

By dictionary’s definition, carnal means “bodily” or “corporeal.” OK? So what is a “carnal writer” then?

I am borrowing the term from the exquisite memoirist and author of The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr. I actually attempted to explain what she meant by “carnal writing” on Chapter 5 of my memoir booklet, Scribbling from Memory. Here’s what I wrote:

She [Mary Karr] said, “In writing a scene, you must help the reader employ the smell and taste and touch as well as image and noise.” Basically, it is about standing in the room of the past and heightening your senses there. Spot that stimulus–that particular button that will open your memory–then help the reader smell, taste, and touch, see or hear it. Once the reader’s senses take it all in, everything turns into ‘flesh.‘”

In short, carnal writers make the images in their story too vivid that the reader’s finger can’t help but move upon taking it all in. They make something real–alive, almost tangible, in the flesh–merely through words. Other writers can simply describe this skill as the proverbial “show, don’t tell.” Mary Karr, however, also pointed out: “The more carnal a writer’s nature, the better she’ll be at this.”

Now, here follows four of the many ways to develop the skill of carnal writing. If you do these faithfully, I believe that you will eventually adopt the “nature” which Mary Karr says and become a carnal writer yourself:

  1. Notice the little details around you. For some people, noticing little worlds, tiny details, and intricacies have to be deliberate. It takes effort to fully “live in the now” and to constantly “be mindful.” Meditation experts would say that you can start by minding the in-and-out of air within your lungs, or feeling the ground under your feet while walking, or focusing on one word or object. There are, however, other people who are naturally good at spotting the beauty in smithereens. They notice colors, patterns, texture, and temperature. They live with open senses and take all the life in.
  2. Check your thoughts. This may be what psychologists call “metacognition” or thinking about thinking albeit it can easily be understood as self-awareness. From time to time, take a step back or sit for a pause and examine the contents of your mind. What’s happening inside your head? Are you hopeful, curious, defensive? How does this event affect you and what do you think about it? Are you trying to suppress something? Are you protecting yourself from being hurt? Always check the state of the world within you.
  3. Practice putting words to all of it. This can be done either in your head or on paper. Try to label what you can see, describe what you hear, and name what you feel. Go deeper than adjectives. Anton Chevhov, a Russian playwright said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass.” If you read a lot or are exposed to words a lot, this will be easy for you. Otherwise, there is always Google and Merriam to help you out.
  4. Be intentional. Once you’ve practiced writing your thoughts and putting words to what your senses catch, try to make it your intention to bring your reader into your world. Allow him/her to know exactly how things live in your mind, how the world looks in your eyes. Usually if this intention is clear and firm at the back of your head, your words will follow.

Carnal writers make it easier for their readers to empathize them. The seemingly-alive story images encourage more engagement, immersion, and even cooperation on the part of the readers–this, thereby, increases the chance to stir change in and make impact on them. And that’s what you want for your reader, right? Memoirist, starting today, make it your aim to live well (with open senses) and write more (with carnality). Become a carnal writer.

“Step into a scene, and let it drip from your fingertips.” – M.J. Bush

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