Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Do You Smell What I Smell?

Thought for the day:  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a scent will linger longer.

CORRECTION: In my last post, I screwed up when I said the only talent my grandmother's boxers ever had was generating copious quantities of killer flatulence. Not so. They were champion droolers, as well, and could string a line of slobber from both corners of their mouths all the way to the floor. Quite impressive, really. And the male, Chief, was also a major ball player. Nothing made him happier than hours spent chasing after his well-chewed, slobbery, soggy, slimy rubber ball and bringing it back to you. Whether you were dressed for the sport or not.


Studies indicate that the male brain, not to mention certain other sundry body parts, responds more enthusiastically to visual stimuli than the female brain. That is, the sight of bare flesh has the tendency to rev up a man's juices faster than it will a woman's. That doesn't mean men are more responsive to non-sexual visual stimuli, however. My hubby considers traipsing around behind me in an art museum to be a scant step above having a root canal. Nor does it mean women are immune to the visual appeal of certain male physiques, either. I've heard some women say the only reason they watch football is for the sheer pleasure of ogling all those tight bottoms clad in tight breeches. (Not that I've ever noticed, mind you. I watch it purely for the game.)

An excellent athlete, I'm sure.

To varying degrees, we all react to visual images. Females respond viscerally to the sight of babies, both human and animal. Men are more apt to notice an anomaly in their surroundings. Or in a movie. This, however, may be due to the fact that while a teary-eyed woman is absorbed in the story, her man may be bored out of his gourd, and itching to poke holes in the movie for his own perverse entertainment. (I mean, really, who CARES if a Roman gladiator is wearing Reeboks, right?)


The point is, yes, men react, women react, we all react to what we see. But why do some writers work so hard to reproduce a specific visual image in the minds of their readers, while completely ignoring the value of our other senses?

Like hearing. It would be totally cool if life were accompanied by a soundtrack, wouldn't it? If music could warn us when danger's coming, or if maybe a goofy-sounding ditty could've let my son-in-law's Uncle Mike know I was just joking when I told him we'd already met our quota for Mikes at the wedding, so he'd have to leave. (Thankfully, after a brief awkward moment, he DID laugh ...)

If your entrance were marked with music, what do you think it would be?

I'd like to think mine would be some really cool, sexy down and dirty sax music, but unfortunately, I'm more of a Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk" kinda person. (sigh)

Some writers listen to music when they write. It helps them tap into the proper mood they're attempting to recreate with their words. Kinda like adding a soundtrack to their writing. Do you think it's possible for a writer to provide some semblance of auditory stimulation for his readers, as well?

Yeah, I think it is. Can't provide a full-blown soundtrack, of course, but word choice makes all the difference. Take the statement: "The dog barked." It provides us with basic information, and we understand what the words are saying. But how about this statement? "The chihuahua yapped like a pit bull on helium." It provides the same information, but in a manner such that we can almost hear the little mutt.

Certain sounds leave indelible marks on our psyches, like fingernails scraping across a blackboard, a bugler playing the haunting notes of Taps, coyotes howling, and bombs exploding. When a writer successfully taps into the sounds existing in our collective psyches, he may indeed make it possible for a reader to clearly hear the action in his mind. (And let's not forget the potential power of POW-BOOM-SPLAT onomatopoeia, either.)

Incorporating taste and touch into our writings is also possible, by taking advantage of common sensory experiences. Most of us are familiar with the taste of blood, salt, and vinegar, and the feel of silk, satin, and sand paper.

But I'm more interested in the sense of smell.

Smells have the uncanny ability to evoke very strong deep-rooted reactions and emotions. Don't believe me? Have you ever experienced the phenomenon of catching a whiff of baking bread, a dank musty cellar, a certain brand of perfume or aftershave, or even the scent of sulfur, and been immediately gut-punched by an unexpected memory?

Does the smell of sulfur elicit any memories for you?

Psychologists say our brains are hardwired to associate smells with memories. It's only natural that whenever I smell a dank dusty smell, I am immediately transported to my maternal grandmother's scary cellar. There's a certain expensive brand of make-up ... I don't know what it IS, because I'm ... er ... thrifty .... but whenever I catch a faint whiff of it, I'm cuddled up next to my paternal grandmother again. Old Spice? Can't smell the stuff without thinking of my father.

So, the wise writer will make an effort to incorporate smells into his work. Take advantage of your capacity to stimulate associative memories with your smelly words. Because the bottom line is, evoking a reader's reaction to the smells you describe in your writing will also evoke a strong reaction to your writing itself.

Ya know? Kinda makes me wonder if when I'm long gone, my children and grandchildren will associate any particular scent with me. 

Hmmmm, maybe I'd better lay off the baked beans.

Until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other.


  1. I can still smell my grandmother's house - it is one of my favorite scents.

    Although I am not a writer, nor do I wish to be, I do find it is easier to write blog posts when I have music blaring in my headphones. It just flows for me.

    I love your description of the chihuahua - I will never hear one of them bark again without giggling at your prose. heehee

  2. Great post.

    I had a hideous sinus infection last winter, and lost my sense of smell completely for six weeks or better. Food didn't take right, and life just wasn't as good.

    It's paint for me. Mom used to store her oil paint and turpentine in a cupboard, and any oil paint smells conjure up that cupboard and of course all the memories of Mom that I associate with it. Someday I will blog about Mom painting the linoleum floors in the old farmhouse.

  3. Entering now (hallelujah Chorus)....I have to agree with you on fact just mentioning a scent causes me to experience it. If I close my eyes I can still smell Campbells book store and all the new school supplies. Leaving now (dum dum dum dummmmmm).

  4. LOL! Nice parting image. ;)

    I think of my dad whenever I smell Old Spice, too.

    You're so right about not neglecting the other senses in our writing -- that's what brings it off the page.

  5. I can't do without music. With that said you may think the Sound of Music would be my life's theme song. Nope, I think it is more like Bridge on the River Kwai. I feel I have been marching off to somewhere for most of my years - have to move, have things to do.

    I would like to be identified though with Neil Young's Harvest Moon. That song sings to my heart. My son-in-law said that when he thinks of me, that song comes into his head. Also, when I go to a local restaurant, the singer/piano player will play that (or another Neil Young song) as he sees me enter. It does not have that much to do with me, but rather the tip I always leave him. Five bucks can buy you attention and it works for me.

    I have kind of lost my appetite lately, but that sense of smell is still going strong. Yes, many memories are triggered by the scents of our past.

  6. The lack of one's sense of small is called 'anosmia'; surprisingly few people know the word! They know blind, deaf, and dumb; but anosmic? No.

    Am I preaching? Sorry.

  7. (Enters to opening bars of The Band's "The Weight") What a great vivid post! I've had slobbering dogs, musty basements and footballers' rear ends in my life. Music, too, cues memories. Sometimes picturing a place will make me remember the smell of it. Funny how we store these things and they're always there.. the wet wool of the cloakroom, the dog who's just been in the marsh, the first time the radiators heat up in the fall. It's all filed away for reference. Yes, we should use them.

  8. Hi, All. Thank you so much for your comments.

    Skippy- Glad you liked the image of the chihuahua. They really do seem to think they're fierce attack dogs, don't they? Oh, and I beg to differ, dear lady. You write ... therefore, you ARE a writer! (Not to mention an A-1 cartoonist!)

    Musical Gardener- Ah, yes, the smell of turpentine and oil paints is a great trigger. (Maybe THAT'S how my kids and grandkids will remember me!)Glad your sniffer is working now. Even bad smells are better than none at all.

    Delores- I LOVE your entrance and exit music. You really crack me up, lady.

    Linda- Yeah, I got a kick out of that kid in the gas mask, too. (P.S. I don't REALLY eat a lotta beans!)

    Starting Over- You always make such super comments. Thank you, ma'am. The song from Bridge On the River Kwai paints a perfect image. Great choice. And hey! Look at YOU! You kinda DO have a theme song if the piano player hits it as soon as you walk into the restaurant. How cool is that? Great song to be associated with, too. My daughter says my song is "It's a Wonderful World." That's kinda nice, too.

    Cro- You're right. Anosmia certainly isn't a common word. My grandfather had next to no sense of smell. He was also a poultry farmer, and I'm not sure which came first, the chickens or the inability to smell them. But he ate limburger cheese, because it was one of the few things he could taste. (Net he would've liked Marmite, too!)

    Austan- Since you mentioned the scent of the wet wool in the cloakroom, how about the smells of freshly mimeographed papers, and the old-timey paste we used to use in elementary school? The dog coming out of the marsh is a vivid one, too. Especially when there's skunk cabbage in that marsh.

    Take care, all.

  9. One of the most helpful suggestions I was told about editing is to look at every page and see if there was a sensory perception that could be added besides sight.

  10. Hi, Connie. Cool. Nobody told me that, but it sounds like I must be on the right track. Thanks.

  11. Great post! I too often forget to include the smells. I wonder why our brains are wired to associate smell so closely to memory? There must be a survival reason in there somewhere. Is it that early man was more likely to remember the smell of a plant that made him upchuck more than what it looked like? Hmmm.

  12. Hi, Dianne. By George, I think you're onto something there. Makes sense, anyway. I think it also has something to do with the proximity of the olfactory nerves to the part of our brains where the memories are stored. (Seems to me I read something about that in a neuro-psychology book.)

  13. Hmmm maybe I'm not a wise writer. I can't for the life of me remember using smell in my stories. Either that or I'm just tired.

  14. What a great post, Susan. Austan's mention of radiators heating up in fall... as a teen, yes... only now in Ontario it's a furnace. It's very comforting. I love the smell of Plasticine and brand new note-books (for school). And that crisp autumn air that sets in. I think I love Autumn. ;)I love petrol as the gas station. Not sure why. I could bottle that. Fascinating, the neuro-psychology behind that.

  15. Hi, Al. I'll vote for "you're just tired." And just because I consider it wise for writers to take advantage of the manipulative powers of smells, I don't think it's UN-wise if a writer doesn't use them. Kinda like screwdrivers. If I need one, but none is handy, I'll grab a butter knife. (drives my husband nuts!) And if a straight-edged screwdriver is closer, I'll use it on a phillips-head screw rather than fetch the proper screwdriver. But even without the "better" tools, I still manage to get the job done. I consider the incorporation of the senses into our writing as just another tool.

  16. Hi, Carrie. Glad you liked it. Yeah, the smells of autumn are wonderful ... like chrysanthemums and burning leaves. Take care.

  17. Smells are memory joggers for sure.

    The smell of popcorn reminds me of going to the movies when I was a kid. Back in the old days (the 1950s) it cost 15 cents to get in and 10 cents for a box of popcorn. licorice was 2 pcs. for a penny. Those were the good old days :-)

    Thanks for the smell memory :-)


  18. Hi, Ron. One measly quarter used to buy us kids an afternoon's respite from the heat, and our parents, a respite from us. Especially when the theater showed a double feature!

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