My next series of posts will be pertaining to our senses, and, today, page 15 of Room to Write kicks us off with our sense of SMELL. In describing smells, we can list significant smells or try to describe a person or place strictly using sense of smell:
There was an air freshener my mother used to keep in one of the bathrooms that always made me think of my grandmother’s winter home in Cape Coral, Florida. Even though I hadn’t been there since the age of 5, any time I used the loo as a teenager I was transported back to this place that I could barely recall visually. In attempting to describe this smell, it was pungent (in a good way), spiking through the nostrils with a sort of juicy, fruity, ocean breezy scent that makes me think of blue. I also still hold onto shampoo samples from my first trip to Cabo San Lucas a few years ago (yes, I’ve saved the toiletries that long), as all I have to do is sniff to get that same teleportation to a calmer, tranquil retreat. It smells most dominantly of sage mixed with aloe and a well-rounded fruitiness that I could cup my tongue around, though it isn’t tart like the air freshener scent–there’s something more arid about it like the dry winds breathed out by the Pacific across the sand and carried green brittle scents of cacti. It’s a scent that makes me see a cloudless blue sky from the vantage of floating on my back in the waters of an azure-tiled pooled. As a kid I would love to step into my parents’ garage on a humid summer day and deeply inhale the fragrance of gasoline (healthy habit, I know), which gave me the same satisfaction as the scents of freshly-cut wood and wood stain still can when I enter a home improvement or furniture store. An odor on the cusp of this category, but that walks a finer line between love and hate with me is that of fresh paint. No, in fact, the jury is in on that one after all; I don’t like it for its way of teasing me at first that it’s wood stain then goes in for the sting of sour headache-inducing toxicity. To alleviate it, I open my windows to the moist air that can smell of snowy chills and soil and the must of dried leaves, exhaust, and the occasional coriander. I like the smell of entering the bathroom after my husband has already showered so I can take in the herbal, apple-y, musky mixture of assorted toiletries, undermined only by the now-and-then stink of mossy mildew, like grub-infested mud. As I remove my clothing to take my own shower, I may catch a whiff of paprika and salted alfredo. I’ve never been one to be able to distinguish between the components of a glass of wine’s bouquet, so perhaps my olfactory sense is, in fact, weak, but I’ll say this: one scent I cannot handle is breath. The mildewy rot of halitosis goes without saying; I’m talking even the slightest essence of chicken or pepper or garlic, the stale, chemical scent of consumed alcohol, or the milder yet gag-inducing average scent, like milk steamed with the stifling closeness of humidity…whatever it is, I’m not having it in my face. I’ve never understood the possibility of poets’ descriptions of “sweet breath” in their odes of love, and “baby’s breath” always creeped me out as a flower’s name. Breath is what stinks up a bedroom like dirty feet and clammy armpits when one falls asleep with one’s mouth open without having brushed one’s teeth. Contained odor of other people’s bodies on airplanes, trains, buses, what have you, is another sensitivity for me. I addressed my own stench above after a day’s activity and a night’s rest, but the ground-in cumin smell that practically solidifies in the air as its own entity when a human has not been washed for days, if not weeks, is an olfactory oppression, and I would be mortified if my smell was enough to infuse a room merely because I occupy it. There is nothing scent-sational in that.
This activity brought me warm, soothing memories in the opening as I recalled the scents that give me pleasure, but I see how I gradually gravitated toward the more unpleasant of life’s odors and thereby yanked myself from tranquility into the judgmental crankiness of an old codger!
Like I said above, I never regarded myself as one to have the most keen sense of smell, but I realize now I’m much more sensitive in this aspect than I would’ve given much pause to realize. It seems when people write (including myself), the first descriptions to jump to are the visual ones. Even looking at what I wrote above, I couldn’t resist reverting to visuals. I noticed this all the time with my high school students, and we used to workshop on revising their stories to try to incorporate all five of the senses to better immerse the reader into their storyworlds. It’s this descriptive language that brings words on the page to life because it appeals to our living faculties and makes us feel as though we’re using them when we read, smelling what the characters smell, touching what they do, etc.
From my experience, smell and taste tend to me the least incorporated descriptors (if not most challenging), so this is a worthwhile exercise to come back to time and again. Whenever we write a new passage and revisit it to revise, we must ask ourselves if there is anything in that passage that lends itself to scent. If not, or if it wouldn’t add much value as a superfluous, distracting detail, then we shouldn’t force it. But if it could enhance the scene as a more realistic sensory experience, then we should certainly try.