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When I was twenty, after a motorbike crash (this bore no connection to the unfortunate incident of the unregistered moped), I had an experience of temporary blindness. This was, at the time, referred to as ‘hysterical blindness’. (Oh, don’t even get me started!)

It was a strange and frightening experience – but what I recall most is how vivid sound became during my few days without sight. Every noise seemed heightened. Louder, brighter, more loaded with meaning.

In writing, as in life, restrictions can sometimes create new possibilities. We see that in science and technology, we see it even in nature. And we see it in art.

Have a look at this well-known passage from Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs in which he describes a whole scene focusing almost entirely on sound alone:

“Ever since I could remember, the dunny man had come running down the driveway once a week. From inside the house, we could hear his running footsteps. Then we could hear the rattle and thump as he lifted the lavatory, took out the full pan, clipped on a special lid and set down an empty pan in its place. After more rattling and banging, there was an audible intake of breath as he hefted the full pan onto his shoulder. Then the footsteps went back along the driveway, slower this time but still running. From outside in the street there was rattling, banging and shouting as the full pan was loaded onto the dunny cart along with all the other full pans …

(On Christmas eve) …

My mother and I were having breakfast. I heard the dunny man’s footsteps thumping along the driveway, with a silent pause as he hurdled my bicycle, which in my habitual carelessness I had left lying there. I heard the usual thumps, bangs and heaves. I could picture the brimming pan, secured with the special clipped lid, hoisted high on his shoulder while he held my mother’s gift bottle of beer in his other, appreciative hand. Then the footsteps started running back the other way. Whether he forgot about my bicycle, or simply mistimed his jump, there was no way of telling. Suddenly there was the noise of … well, it was mainly the noise of a dunny man running full tilt into a bicycle. The uproar was made especially ominous by the additional noise — tiny but significant in context — of a clipped lid springing off.”

Try this week attending to what you hear a little more. Try closing your eyes every so often and noticing what sounds mean without visual context. Stand or sit in a park, or at a café, or near a beach: close your eyes. Listen. Where are the sounds coming from? Can you isolate where in space they are? Can you hear the sound of your own breath, your own blood?

And if you want a writing exercise, today’s exercise is to make like Clive James. Write about a place using just sound, focusing entirely on what you hear. You can make this a piece of writing which begins with you now, wherever you are. Or it might be a place, an event, that you remember. Or it might be something drawn entirely from your magnificent imagination. Perhaps a place which exists in the novel you are writing or rewriting.

The only restriction is that your attention is on what you can hear. Prick up your ears and pick up your pen.


Today’s prompt is…


Write about a stranger arriving