Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Follow Your Nose

Photo by Susan Vittitow Mark
by Susan Mark

We are often told to use all five senses in our writing. For me, smell is the most fiendishly difficult of them to use effectively. Nearly 20 years ago, I tried to write a poem about my husband's scent, how intoxicating the smell of him was when we were first dating, how being enveloped in it became so much a part of me. I handed the draft to a friend to read. After an awkward pause, she simply said, "It sounds like he stinks."

I assure you, my husband doesn't stink, but my attempt to tap into that most powerfully emotional of the senses didn't smell so good.

Smell is processed deep in the limbic system of our brain, the emotional  brain. In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes,  "Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once."

However, she also writes, "Smell is the mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words..."

It's easy for me to think of words to describe a sight, a touch, a sound, but I have to really think to come up with adjectives to describe a smell that don't merely name what the smell comes from. Bacon, for example. How do I describe a bacon smell other than to say it smells like bacon? Sure, there is "smoky" in there, but there's so much more to bacon smell than that. No one with a functioning sense of smell could fail to distinguish woodsmoke  from bacon, but what is the difference?

I smell bacon, and I think of smelling it faintly as I'm still under the covers on a school morning. I see Mom in her housecoat at the stove with a cast iron skillet, her legs covered in varicose veins from bad genetics and seven pregnancies, feeding Dad plus a gaggle of kids every morning. I think warm and safe and cared for. All these things wrapped up in a single smell.

Looking around the Internet, I found this great tipsheet with a list of words to describe smell. It's a great writing prompt if you want to try to incorporate smell more in your writing.

Is smell the most difficult of the five senses to include in your writing? Or is there another one that trips you up? Have you tried focusing on smell in a piece of writing?


Lynn said...

I remember including "the smell of diesel" and "the odor of vodka-infused sweat" in a creative nonfiction piece I wrote. But I pretty much rely on the idea that the reader knows those smells and tap into that. How to describe an unfamiliar smell to a reader? Now I'm stumped.

Thanks for the info and the links!

Anonymous said...

I think most smells simply smell like what they came from. "Vodka-infused sweat" is definitely vivid, though, and I bet nearly every reader would know EXACTLY what that smelled like!

Of course, the difficulty is not limited to smells. After all, how would you describe blue to someone who was completely colorblind?

Jenny said...

That's a great list! You didn't describe your husband as "goaty" did you? :-)

Anonymous said...

Jenny, you made me laugh. No, don't think I've ever used "goaty" to describe him. :D

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