I was not happy with one of my recent posts, on using the sense of smell in writing. The whole thing fell flat even though the topic is interesting.
So, I read more about how smell “is unique among the senses because it enters directly deep into the brain,” and how that might be why it seems to trigger long-buried memories more than the other senses.
And I did an experiment. I jotted down as many smell-related memories as I could in two minutes. The twist: they couldn’t relate to food. No cookies in grandma’s kitchen or chestnuts on an open fire (which don’t smell that great, to be honest).
Here’s what I came up with:
The smell of trees and crisp, pure earth while standing in the courtyard of the library at Hendrix College on a bitingly cold winter night in 1983 or ’84. No one was around except for C., my funny, quirky, much-younger boyfriend. We kissed, and as we kissed, big wet snowflakes started to fall, even though we could still see stars behind the thin clouds. It was serene and beautiful, and it made me think that everything that came before led up to this one perfect moment.
The strong but not-unpleasant smell of the chemicals used in printing, during the first ten minutes of my first real job, at age eighteen. I was hired to work part-time as a typesetter at a print shop. I went in that first morning and my boss went over everything.
My time would be measured in six-minute increments, because that was how they determined pricing for customers. I thought, is this the next forty years of my life, with the sun shining outside and my imagination humming along, and me sitting at a desk keeping track of how long I’m in the restroom or sitting at my desk? God help me.
The thick smell of Paris perfume at a posh restaurant in Houston. It was the eighties, and everything was over the top. Shoulder pads got bigger and bigger until blouses looked like football uniforms. Color is good? Then let’s make every piece of clothing neon. And let’s perm our hair so our clothes don’t get all the attention.
I was at a restaurant with a new boyfriend, and he was trying way too hard. It was too early for the fancy stuff; we needed to just focus on each other for a while. Yet here we were. During dessert he pulled out a big, wrapped box with a bow: the largest size of Paris perfume on the market.
I love perfume but all all the bergamot/citrus/sandalwood whatever caused something viscerally unpleasant. It was a sweet gesture, but it made me realize he would never be the guy for me.
Smells conjure long-buried memories that could bring something very powerful to our writing.
--Ann Kellett, Ph.D.
Ann Kellett Editing