Writing the Senses: Smell

nose by bex

Nose (self portrait) watercolour and pencil

I spoke before about what I call Embodied Writing.  I don’t think you have writing that is truly immediate and visceral without grounding it in the physical.  Using your senses is one way to do this.

I looked up the sense of smell, and was blinded by a great deal of science on the olifactory system.  A couple of little morsels I did manage to glean included:

  • Women have a stronger sense of smell than men, and their sense of smell is most powerful during ovulation.
  • The senses of smell and taste are related, and both depend on responding to volatile chemicals in the atmosphere.  Which is presumably why I sometimes feel like I can ‘taste’ a smell.
  • In the human brain, the temporal lobes, which deal with cognition and memory, and the olifactory bulbs, which handle the perception of smell, are very closely linked.  Scientists have speculated that this is what gave Homo Sapiens the evolutionary advantage over their rivals.  It also means that smell and memory are closely linked, which is why certain smells can take you back to breath-takingly vivid memories of the past.
  • You sense of smell starts deteriorating in your teens, but that said, some pensioners have a better sense of smell than the average twenty-something.  Like taste, though, smell is likely to be something you will lose as you get older.

Smell helps us identify the ripe and healthy food from the rotten.  It helps us select a mate, and stay safe from dangers such as fires and wild animals.  Smells connect us with our past, with positive and negative memories.

Nurses in front line dressing stations in the First World War reported vivid memories of the odors of rotting flesh amongst the casualties; and we all remember that quote from the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ about ‘the smell of napalm in the morning’.

For many of us, the scents of cinnamon and nutmeg instantly transport us to Christmas, and the smell of a favoured sun tan lotion can have us basking on a tropical beach even if we are actually sitting in a park in Barking.  Watching cookery programmes is often so frustrating for this reason too – why doesn’t someone invent ‘Smellivision’?  And if you have ever walked into a supermarket and found yourself drawn to the Bakery, even though you only came in for loo roll, don’t be fooled.  Marketing specialists know how seductive that delicious scent is, so they pump the scent of baking bread through the air conditioning system to coax your brain into feeling hungry – and thus buying more.

Smells are hugely evocative, from the smell of poster paint on our first day at school to the aroma of wet earth after a summer storm, and that is why they are so important in writing.

Writing Exercises:

  • Take out your writing notebook and note down some of your favourite smells.  What are the scents that are the most evocative for you?  Make a list, then choose one and write down the memory that is associated with it, or why you chose it.  Take the time to write in as much detail as you can.  Think up as many adjectives, as many ways of describing the smell as you can.
  • Over the next few days and weeks, make a point of thinking more about your sense of smell, and the smells around you.  If you are like me, and not a perfume wearer, or someone particularly aware of smells, you may have to work at this.  Try to keep it in mind.  Every day, try to pick a particular smell and write about it in your notebook, describing it as much detail as you can, and making connections with its context, or what memories it evokes for you.
  • Take yourself on a ‘Smell Safari’.  Visit a florist’s and smell the flowers.  Hang out at the bakers or in a shop that sells spices.  Health Food shops and New Age shops often have interesting scents.  Walk around the park, or in the country, smelling nice things and the nasty ones. (Don’t get too close to the nasty ones, though, for health reasons!)  Don’t forget to take your notebook and make copious notes.  Don’t limit yourself to nice perfume stores, though they can be interesting in themselves.  There are millions of smells out there to sample, and very few of them are manufactured.
  • Write a few character sketches of people you know, describing them solely by their smells.  What about the characters in the stories you are writing at the moment – what would they smell like?  What smells would they like, and why?
  • Find out more about your sense of smell and how it works.  Maybe you can work out the science better than I have.  Then, test it out.  What smells excite you, what smells depress you?  Do some smells make you fearful?  How do you react emotionally to individual scents?
  • Read Patrick Sűskind’s splendiferous masterpiece, ‘Perfume:  The Story of a Murderer’.  A whole book written about the sense of smell?  Yes, it’s incredible.  You won’t believe your eyes.  Or possibly your nose.
  • Imagine a familiar smell.  Now take out your notebook and write about a context or scene in which that familiar, comforting scent becomes sinister, even terrifying.  Now try it the other way around.

Once you have built up this memory bank of information about smell, think about how you can incorporate it into your writing.  How can you use it to describe your characters, what telling details of scent will be enough to show your reader a person’s nature?

Happy Sniffing,

EF

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