Your Life as Story: Writing Narrative Non Fiction
Writing Sensuous Details

February, 2013

Lisa Dale Norton

"What makes you fall in love with a story?"

Santa Fe, New Mexico, spreads flat across the horizon. No skyscrapers mar this place.

It's winter now, and the colors are chalk brown and muted green huddled amidst the white of mounded snow. In my fireplace, I like others, burn Pinion pine, and it makes this northern New Mexico town smell like a perfumed temple on winter days.

Santa Fe huddles at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Its rounded adobe architecture flows with the earth mirroring its color, and when I wander the narrow, winding streets, bundled in fleece against sharp winter air, sunglasses cutting angular light, I feel as if I am exploring a tucked-away city in another country, on another continent, in another time.

What makes you fall in love with a story? What makes you feel you are living it at the moment the words enter you from the page?

For me, it's the details. I care about the music of the language and what the writing has to teach me, and in the end, I want those bigger, universal themes to change me. But as I read narrative nonfiction, and the world of story rises before me, I want to see it, taste it, smell it, hear it, and feel it on my skin.

"Sensuous details."

Sensuous details.

I open writing classes by asking students: "What did you hear today? What did you smell?" At first those writers, who hurried distractedly to class, sit mute.

"I smelled toast," one says.

"I heard my alarm clock."

Yes, well….

Over time, they get excited and start to pay attention. They come to class eager, shooting hands into air before I finish attendance.

"I heard a bird!"

"What kind?"

"That one with the orange stomach."

"You mean a robin."

"Cool," says the student, grinning: "I heard a robin."

Over time reports grow richer and more original.

I believe we must become students of our senses, awe-struck again like babes toddling through life, eyes wide at all that swirls around us.


"Pay attention."
Pay attention.

What did you smell today?

The more we catalogue quietly in our minds the details of our days, the more those details work their way into our narrative nonfiction and perpetuate the dream that is story. The more we spin the dream, the more our writing captures readers.

"I was in a dream," a reader reports after finishing a book. "I wish it had never ended."

How many of you have said those very words upon finishing a grand book?


Lisa Dale Norton is a regular Authorlink columnist. She is nationally recognized as a writing instructor with a passion for story. Read more about Lisa.

About Lisa Dale Norton Lisa Dale Norton's new book about memoir, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR (St. Martin's Press), is in bookstores now. Lisa is the author of the acclaimed memoir HAWK FLIES ABOVE: JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE SANDHILLS, a work combining memoir and nature writing. She teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program and speaks nationally on the process of memoir. She lives in Santa Fe.