Thursday, November 13, 2008

I Smell With My Little Nose

First of all, a brief Burning Zeppelin Update. Last night I opened up Google Analytics (seriously, the most awesome tool for web site owners - since you folks don't comment very often, it's the only way I know I have readers - it's also how I know I have readers in Sweden and Japan) and saw a new referring site added to the list. Slightly Moderated Stream of Consciousness, another blog by one of writerly ambitions. At first, I wondered how Loren Hopkins heard of me. Then, I saw that she he had also added Urraca to her his blogroll, another blog that, like mine, recently attracted the attention of the inestimable Mur Lafferty of I Should Be Writing. It hit me. People were visiting me because they read a link on Loren's site, which she he put up there because of a link she saw on Mur's site. In all fairness, Mur might not have heard of me had I not, as a faithful and ambitious consumer of I Should Be Writing, sent her a voicemail asking her to check me out. But nonetheless.

It feels like a milestone for this blog.

Also, Japan! Crazy!

* * *

What I actually want to talk about today is smell. Smelly, smelly smell.

The Abigail went away to the yearly NADT conference of drama therapists. Like all conferences, this one included swag, the nicest of which was an adorable stone candle holder. It's really quite nice, all milky and translucent and very attractively shaped, with a nice heft to it. Oddly enough, though, I kept on lifting it to my nose and giving it a wiff, as though I expected it to smell like something. Every time I did this and my nose reported "nope, still no smell," I experienced this funky little puzzled sensation.

I kept at it for about three days until it finally hit me: I was expecting the Abigail's candle holder to smell like goat.

As you may recall from here, I am of the Jewish persuasion. One of the artifacts of our faith is the shofar, a hollowed out ram's horn upon which can be played a sharp clarion-call which we use to mark the beginning of the year and the end of the High Holy Days (it's also a call to arms - "to your tents, oh Israel!"). The paler shofarot (that's more than one shofar) are milky and translucent, the exact same shade of yellow as the Abigail's candle holder. It was then that the power of smell was driven home to me.

Also, I was finally able to stop sniffing the Abigail's candle holder, which is good because she was finding it quite disconcerting.

Anyway, it then occurred to me how little I use smell in my writing. I don't describe how places and people smell, let alone traditionally smelly objects. Every now and again I note that a corpse is stinky, an incense is spicy, a food is tasty, but usually I forget. The funny thing is that smell is one of the most important smells for establishing mood. Smell is intimately tied to memory in a deeply subconscious way. The smell of peppermint still reminds me of a certain ex-girlfriend who was really fond of it. Apparently, the appearance of a shofar makes me think of the smell of goat in a deep gut way.

The trouble is that smell is subtle. It's all around us, hooked directly into the deepest parts of our brains, and we don't always notice it. This shofar/candle holder incident makes think about all the other places where my life has been influenced by smell. When might I have made a friend because one of us smelled right? Or, more disturbingly, an enemy? When have I had a negative experience of a place because I walked in, smelled something that activated a bad memory, and acted like a jerk until I left?

More importantly, what is my writing missing?

The other funny thing is that I have used smell before. I wrote a whole fantasy story in which I usually described magic in terms of its smell and taste (Gwydion's magic smelled like earth, leaves, and grass; Randall's magic smelled like metal and spices). I think it worked really well.

So now, I rededicate myself to producing more stinky writing, and you should consider it, too.

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  • Have you ever had a similar experience of an object, person, or place's smell? Please, God, tell me I'm not alone...
  • When have you used smell in your writing to a particularly notable effect?
  • When have you written something and later realized that adding more about smell might have improved it?


Abby said...

I feel the spontaneous need to emphasize that the candle holder wasn't random conference swag, it was a gift for being on the conference committee. Also, the BEST swag was the books, particularly the one on puppets and dissociation.

Anyway. Also. I don't think there is a single smell or taste in my currently 12,300ish-word NaNo novel. Oops!

Scattercat said...

It's interesting; smell is one of the first things I think of describing when setting a scene (and less so for characters). I find it odd simply because my own sense of smell is so feeble.

I wonder if it has anything to do with the approach one has taken to writing and the reasons one has for pursuing that path.

Anonymous said...

I think it's one of the things that slides in and out of my consciousness. Sometimes I've got smell on the brain - like when I wrote that story I mentioned, where magic had a smell - and sometimes it fades. I do the same thing with weather.

Further evidence for editing. That way I can write a novel when I'm in one mode and then fix it when I'm in a complementary mood!

Unknown said...

I identify people through smell sometimes, and if you blindfolded me and took me to different locations I'm familiar with i can usually identify them by smell. I can also sometimes smell when it's about to rain. but smell almost always reminds me of something.

Loren said...

Hi Mark

Cheers for the link. It's always pleasantly surprising when something like that happens. As for the old olfactory system, I also find that certain smells conjure up vivid memories of seminal moments from my life. There's a certain odor in spring that always reminds of playing pokemon cards. Damn I miss that game. I've never really thought about incorporating this important sense into my writing though, but it's something I'll be a little more aware of in future. According to legend Marcel Proust wrote his masterpiece after catching a whiff of some cookies that brought on a flood of childhood memories. Maybe there's lesson in that somewhere.

P.S. I'm a guy, no worries though this happens all the time. The story of my name is both exhilarating and arduous, but there’s not enough room here.

P.S.S. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

RE P.S. Ack! My apologies, kind sir.

Loren said...

oops, Proust was eating a cookie when the Muse struck (not sniffing it). My bad.