21 Jul

Writing Through the Senses: Smell

Posted in Writing Exercises, Writing Through The Senses

Ah, the ever elusive sense of smell.  While this may be the most difficult of the senses for writers to incorporate in their work, it is no less important than the others.

Fun Fact: did you know that while receptors for all the other senses connect to the main part of the brain (the cortext), the olfactory receptors are different?  In fact, one part of the olfactory system connects via the amygdala, which is one of the parts of the brain that deals with memory.

My theory is that this is why smells hold such powerful, vivid memories for us.  Who can mistake the smell of birthday candles as they’re being blown out.  Or what about that crisp smell the air gets right before a big snow?

Haven’t you ever been somewhere and smelled something that transported you to a whole other time and place?  The other day I was walking down the street and something smelled dry and still, like airport air that has that musty travel smell to it.  In instantly got this pang of memory of a time when I was stranded in an airport in Brazil for an entire day, not knowing whether or not my flight would be allowed to leave.

The truth is, part of the reason why scents are so difficult for writers is that there are very few “smell words” in our vocabulary.  We have lots of words for sounds: loud, soft, brassy, whisper.  There are also plenty of words for touch (soft, smooth, rough) and taste (sweet, salty, bitter, sour).  And don’t even get me started on sight; aside from a plethora of adjectives, we also have the vocabulary of colors at our disposal.

But for smell there’s hardly any.  Instead, we’ll use similes and metaphors to say “that smells like movie theater popcorn” or “that smell is suffocating.”  The only smell word I can think of is “pungent” and even then, it can refer to taste as well as smell.  In fact, most words we use for smells have been appropriated from one of the other senses (like saying something smells sweet or sharp).

Because smells are linked so strongly to objects or places, it is no surprise that smell should be so closely tied to memory as well.  That’s where this week’s exercise comes in.

Writing Exercise: Scent of a Memory
Follow each of the steps and don’t proceed to the next one until you have finished the current step.

  1. Think of a scent you love.  Write it down (3 words or fewer).
  2. Describe this scent.
  3. Is there a place you associate with this scent?  What is the significance of this place?
  4. Is there a person associated with this scent?  What is this person’s relationship to you?
  5. Why does this scent remind you of this person or place?
  6. Write down a memory of this person/place.
  7. Last question: what color is this scent?

Now write a short poem or prose piece about this scent and the memory it evokes.

Here ends our foray into Writing Through the Senses.  It’s not to late too late to join the challenge so sign up by clicking on the above link and read all the Writing Through the Senses posts.  I’ll be drawing the winner and announcing the results next week!


Comments on this post

  1. Sonia says:

    This one was easy for me, because I just got back from India two weeks ago, and India definitely has a distinctive–not bad, just musty– smell. It infiltrated my wardrobe while I was there and forced me to rewash all my clothes as soon as I got back to the States! It brings back vivid memories of my grandparents, which, of course, are always welcome.
    The smell's colour would be the bright saffron of marigolds and holy robes found all over India, but dustier due to the pollution and dirt surrounding the city. Sepia-ish, but a little lighter perhaps?

    1. gabi says:

      Sonia-I totally know what you mean about places having a distinctive smell. I've never been to India, but my family is from Brazil and there's definitely a scent to my family's hometown (warm, sweet, earthy and green–sort of a combination of eucalyptus and the ocean.)

      I can definitely picture the color you describe and I think I can imagine what that smells like like too. Thanks so much for sharing!

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