Sensory Details: The sense of smell

THE SENSE OF SMELL has always been my weakest sense, and I have always envied writers whose sense of smell is strong and present in their storytelling. Writers who talk about the steamy, yeast-filled fragrance of a loaf of bread straight from the oven, who remember scents of lilacs and mown grass from their childhood, and who manage to fill their stories with fragrant, rather than visual, imagery.

You might ask why it matters. Studies have proven that some of our strongest memories are linked to smells (even in those of us for whom the sense of smell isn’t particularly prominent). That is why the scent of our mother’s perfume, lingering on her clothing long after she is gone, will bring back a flood of childhood memories, and why certain kinds of food aromas spell contentment.

Women I know who were raised by parents who spent a lot of time in the kitchen associate food with more than just dinner; it equates to family time, to discussion, to warmth, and to comfort. Women like me, whose childhood kitchen smells (except for holidays and canning season) included TV dinners and burnt brownies … well, I can only say that I have a certain fondness for the smell of burning cookies.

I notice that I don’t pay attention to scents, unless they are particularly strong. Therefore, smells and all their associations, negative and positive, don’t show up in my writing of their own accord. To reverse what I perceive as a flaw in myself — not only as a writer, but as an experiencer of life — I set myself a task. During the week, whenever it occurs to me, I try to notice the smells around me. I’ll bend down close and sniff a rose, bury my face in something soft and fragrant, or take note of the not-so-nice smells of burning rubber, diesel engines, or cigars. I inhale deeply of whatever the scent is, and then mentally attempt to describe it.

I ask myself, what does this smell taste like? Is it bitter? Sour? Sweet? Tangy? Does it make my mouth water? Nose wrinkle? When I breathe it in, is it thick or thin? Do I want more of it or less of it? Does it bring up any memories? And so on.

Then, during at least one journal writing session a week, I try to remember a smell that I took note of earlier and describe it. I close my eyes and, in my mind, put myself back in the place where the wonderful fragrance or nose-assaulting smell occurred. I write one paragraph. That’s all. If the memory happens to bring up memories of another kind, I allow myself to write about them, but I don’t force anything.

Here is why this little exercise is successful: I never judge myself (so what if I can’t remember something accurately?); I never judge my writing (hey, no one but me is ever going to read it anyway); and I remind myself that the practice will not only strengthen my writing in the long run, but will also strengthen my powers of perception and ability to stop and breathe in the moment.

If the sense and/or description of smell doesn’t come easily to you, try this little exercise. And let me know how it goes — or smells, as the case may be.


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