SENSE OF SMELL IN WRITING
(handout from April 13, 2017 workshop)
"Given the power of smell, you'd think authors would cram their work with scents, but we don't. Open any literary journal and compare the instances of visual imagery with the number of references to smell. In fact, leaf through your favorite literary journals and see if you can find a reference to smell at all. Most 'creative' writing is oriented toward the visual--what the setting looks like, what the characters look like, what the objects at hand look like--which is important. Sight is a key tool for recognition and navigating space. Yet smell informs the very basics of our survival--eating, mating, and safety from predators--and it does so on the brain's most fundamental level. Sight and the other senses--taste, touch, sound--take a circuitous route through the brain, and the memories associated with them are subject to distortion and reprogramming. Smell, on the other hand, has a direct line to our pre-cognitive brain functioning and the emotional memories associated with each odor. A writer's references to the other senses help readers create an imagined facsimile, but with smell, readers just know. Not only can they experience an immediate, intimate understanding, but smell might actually help readers set aside their disbelief and bond with the characters, because smell--even the memory of smell--is believed to trigger oxytocin, and oxytocin has been associated with our ability to trust and form attachments. Oxytocin's presence in the olfactory bulb of the brain helps explain the important role of smell and odor in the bonding process."
Joseph M. Stookey, PhD
"Smell speaks to our primal mind. The importance of including the sense of smell in our writing is not just to follow the age-old advice to 'use sensory language' to engage the reader, though smells can engage the reader more deeply and directly than any other sense. More than that, smell acts like a laser, cutting straight through to our emotional cores. No other sensory system has this type of intimate link with the neural areas of emotion and associative learning, therefore there is a strong neurological basis for why odors trigger emotional connections."
Rachel Herz, Asst Professor Psychology, Brown Univ
Scientific American, October 2011
Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalks.
We think because we smelled."
Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
EXERCISE: Write about a strong odor. Search your house for a smell that might bring up memories for you. i.e. moth balls, pencil eraser, detergent, etc. Bring a sample of this to your writing desk. Close your eyes and inhale the scent. Let the odor work its way through your brain and body. Observe your feelings and memories. Then open your eyes, put your hand to the page, and write what comes to you.