Saturday, September 22, 2007

Smelling and Tasting Your Memories

Our culture is visually oriented. If it weren’t, magazines wouldn’t have large cover photos to entice the readers to pick them up, and editors wouldn’t spend so much time on layout. Many, if not most, stories rely on visual details. Readers want to see the character or landscape.

Author Rebecca McClanahan wrote in Word Painting, “ . . . ignoring the other senses in your writing is like sitting in a gourmet restaurant, wearing ear plugs, work gloves, and a surgical mask over nose and mouth.” You see the candlelight flickering in your water goblet, the waiters bowing to patrons and balancing trays on their shoulders. If you disregard your other senses, you can’t hear forks clinking against the china or a popping champagne cork. You can’t feel the bubbles tickling your nose, nor smell sautéed garlic and fresh basil. When the dessert tray comes, you’ll be able to see the glazed fruit adorning a cheesecake wedge, but you won’t feel the creamy texture inside your mouth or taste a hint of lemon."

Out of all our senses, our sense of smell has the best memory. It’s probably the most neglected in writing. Using smells in your descriptions will bring another dimension to your writing. Think of the different smells you encounter on a typical day. What smells evoke memories for you? Dove soap reminds me of my grandmother. Chantilly perfume reminds me of my mother and all the women my father dated after her. Magnolias remind me of my high school prom.

I started burning scented candles long before the aromatherapy craze. I like bringing the scent of lilacs and gardenias indoors, or filling the house with vanilla and cinnamon, when I haven’t baked in weeks. Now one can buy candles scented like chocolate cake, coffee, cookies, and even mown grass.

Smells don’t always evoke pleasant or relaxing memories. What about being in a room with two wet dogs? The Polo cologne an old boyfriend wore—the one who cheated on you? Or the container of General Tso’s chicken you left in the refrigerator two weeks ago and now has a green fuzz? Milk a week after the expiration date? A cancer patient’s room? A house filled with sixty cats, and the elderly woman found inside three days after her death? (This recently happened in my home town.)

If you notice, most of the smells I’ve described were in terms of how it makes one react. Writer Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) refers to the sense of smell as “the mute sense, the one without words.” It’s much harder to describe smells, because the connection in our brains between the smell center and the language center isn’t as strong as the connection between our visual and language centers.

Make a list of smells you’d encounter on a typical day. If it helps, go to various rooms and locations and close your eyes. Concentrate on the smells around you. What connections can you make? Freewrite whatever comes to mind.

Without smell, you can’t have taste. Seventy-five percent of taste comes from smell. When we put something in our mouths, molecules that make up specific smells and that trigger our smell receptors, travel to the olfactory receptor cells. These specialized cells are located in your nasal cavity. If it is blocked, so is your ability to smell. That’s why children pinch their noses before taking bad tasting medicine, or things seem to have no taste when we have a cold.

Like smell, taste is another “mute” sense. We usually describe it in terms of how it makes us feel. Sometimes naming the food is enough. Mashed potatoes. Apple pie. Chocolate. Spinach. These food names conjure unique memories. Atmosphere is important in describing food. Ice cream consumed in an old-fashioned ice cream parlor tastes different from ice cream consumed alone in an apartment on a Saturday night while watching “Sex and the City.”

Taste isn’t limited to only food. After being punched in the nose, a man tastes blood. A teenager tries a cigarette for the first time. A woman diagnosed with cancer smokes her last one. The wheat paste our desk mate ate in kindergarten. Crayons. Pencil tips. A kiss.

Spend a few minutes jotting down as many foods you can name. Then make a separate list of non-food words you’ve tasted. When you’ve finished your lists, look over them and see what memories they evoke. Freewrite about them as time allows.

Here’s another variation: Choose one of the items (food or non-food) from your lists. Then list five different atmospheres and situations for each. Refer to the ice cream and cigarette examples to get you started.

The next module of the free course, Creating Memorable Characters, is posted. This one discusses sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. Go to the main CS Writing Workshop page and scroll down to access the link.

In addition to Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, I recommend reading An Alchemy of the Mind. It's a fascinating look at the brain, its functions, and memory. To see what else I've been reading, check out the Buried Treasures Bookstore.


Caryn Swark said...

S'funny... your comments remind me of my boyfriend, who flat out refuses to read anything but comic books. Accordng to him, when you can just draw a picture, why waste words describing stuff?

Men. :)


Rita Marie Keller said...

LOL! It's too bad more people don't read. I have heard men are more visually oriented than women. I will second your comment...MEN!
Thanks for posting!