Exploring the Senses – Olfaction: The Sense of Smell

The sense of smell triggers emotional memories

The sense of smell triggers emotional memories

The sense of smell, more than any of the other senses, can trigger strong emotional memories. The olfactory system is physically wired for it. Unlike the other sensory pathways, the olfactory bulb has a direct connection to the amygdala (emotion) and hippocampus (memory consolidation). When you want to trigger your fictional character’s memory, you may want to figure out why s/he likes, or dislikes certain smells.

Preparing to explore the sense of smell was an exercise in itself. In the search for smells to trigger memories, I went scavenging at my childhood home. I started in the kitchen, looked around my old room, but hit serious pay dirt in my sister’s and my bathroom. I found small bottles of perfume I had received as gifts, lotion, an empty bottle of shampoo that still had a strong smell, and other forgotten stinky treasures. This adventure to my childhood home on the hunt for scents inspired a piece of writing before even doing the exercise.

Smells Like Home

She looked around the cold, empty kitchen. She wanted to make it feel like home again; warm and inviting as if they were all together staring at the TV in a tired, after school daze. She chose the French vanilla coffee from the ten different bags, in variable stages of use, in the freezer and started the pot. Her mother didn’t drink coffee and her dad drank instant. Did he drink instant because making coffee was woman’s work, or did he never bother to figure out the coffee pot? She didn’t know the answer. The only time there was coffee in the pot was for special occasions. Though her coffee was dripping in a regular plastic coffee pot, the sound of the coffee brewing reminded her of the tall silver percolator her mother set on the counter for every social gathering. She smelled the familiar earthy musk mixed with sweet and nutty aromas and she imagined everyone squeezing into the kitchen to help prepare the huge family meal. She thought of the Christmas get together with the lively white elephant gift exchange and smiled.

She went to the refrigerator and pulled out the huge block of orange medium cheddar which her mother always kept in the clear center drawer. The bread was on top of the fridge, though not in the stack of bowls like it used to be. They didn’t have the wonderful, hazelnut bread for her today, so wheat would have to do. She buttered the bread and started to slice the cheese. Remembering her mission to explore the smells of her youth, she held the slice up to her nose. Instantly, she pictured the cat that had been so crazy about cheese you could get him to walk on his hind legs and turn in a circle if you held cheese over him. He would be in the kitchen meowing loudly before you could even get the cheese out of the plastic wrap. He was the only one of Tatiana’s kittens they kept. What was his name? The smell of cheese didn’t bring that back. What a strange thing to forget.

Exercise: Gather a large selection of smelly objects that may trigger memories (I tried a sampling of gum and candy from my childhood along with the things I found in my childhood home). Don’t just look for good smells try some bad ones as well (I tried Witch Hazel, Noxema, and stinky perfume. Be creative. Try everything you can think of). In a group, smell the different objects and write down everything that comes to mind. Pick one smell that affected you the most and write about it for 5 minutes.

My example:

I had heard Ivory soap was invented to float, so I picked up a bar to clean myself in the lake while my septic was backed up—again. This was the second time in three years and when it happened the first time, I’d been without water for three months. At least this time it was warm. I got up before light and ripped open the plastic coated paper wrapper. The strong smell of the freshly opened bar of soap reminded me of the upstairs bathroom in my grandfather’s house. Specifically sitting and reading the wallpaper that looked like pages from a catalog from the old west. I remember the brown drawings of high button boots and a wood stove with prices a child collecting her pennies could afford. I don’t remember using Ivory soap during my annual week long summer visits. The soaps in the dish were small and shaped like flowers, but this was the smell of that bathroom. I decided I didn’t want to smell like grandpa’s bathroom. I didn’t care if the soap sank to the bottom of the lake. I hunted around the cupboard beneath the sink and found some old body wash. It was probably more environmentally friendly anyway.

I hope you try this exercise and enjoy exploring sensory description. I’d love to hear from you. Please leave comments and suggestions. Thank you.

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Exploring the senses – Hearing

Auditory stimuli have the ability to trigger physical reactions. The calming sound of rolling waves, or the alarming jolt caused by a popped balloon can influence how we act and feel. Sounds, especially music, can also trigger memories.

Exercise: To explore hearing, each member of writing group brought a song to listen to. As we listened, we jotted down all of the thoughts that came to mind for the duration of the length of the song. I found that each song triggered personal memories and vivid imagery.

As with all of the sensory writing exercises I’ll describe, the results are twofold:

1. Sound triggers memories and writing ideas.

2. The exercise brings attention to how one’s fictional characters may react to sounds and music based on their histories and circumstances (perceptions).

Describing sounds, how they are perceived and their physical and emotional effects on the characters will add realism and depth to your writing.

Examples of my responses:

St. James Infirmary by Alan Toussaint

Railroad tracks

Otis playing piano in N.O. w/Kathleen on stand-up

I expect to hear Tom Waits start singing at any moment

The piano in that horrible apartment which I almost never played

La Belle Dame Sans Regrets by Sting

Ballroom classes at that weird dance studio in Metairie where I first met Bridget

The black and white checkerboard floor and the floor to ceiling mirrors in the middle of an empty club

Helping teach ballroom at Ruby Fruit Jungle

Drinking a tiny strong coffee at a café in Paris

The drawing Spencer did of his cousin Marie

The program from a Sting concert I thumbtacked to my wall over my desk

Like a Virgin by Madonna

Going to the record store with my gift certificate for winning the talent show and Mom making the clerk play every song on the Air Supply album, then saying it was too suggestive and making me get M.J.’s Thriller instead.

Buying Madonna’s tape from a friend at church because Mom wouldn’t let me get it

I hope this exercise triggers all sorts of ideas for you. I’d love to hear some of them. Also, if you have other sensory exercises you have found useful, please send them along. I love trying new things.

Exploring the Senses – Vision

I apologize for the neglect. I was hibernating. Now, with spring on my doorstep, I return to sharing my writing life with the world of internet content seekers.

Over the next five weeks I’ll share explorations and exercises I did with my writing group in an attempt to incorporate all five senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch) into our writing. I found focusing on the senses enhanced my writing in two ways: it triggered memories and brought depth to character and scene descriptions.

Exercise-

For our vision exercise, each member of the writing group brought at least two pictures they found interesting. One of these pictures was then passed to the person on his or her left. We wrote for five minutes about the picture we received. After reading what we wrote, the exercise was repeated by giving a picture to the person on the right. Not knowing the context of the image triggered surprising memories as my brain attempted to find meaning and make connections to create a story around it.

Example-

Image

Where have I seen this before? I recognize it. She stared at the graffiti on the side of his apartment building. Usually the monochrome tags spray painted through the neighborhood were simplistic and boring, but this was a huge piece of art, a ten foot tall palm tree with a star over the top complete with light, shadow and coconuts. It reminded her of that Dos Equis Christmas commercial with all the lit up palm trees, but that wasn’t what was tugging at her memory. Maybe it was just déjà vu. She imagined the darkly clothed artist creating his image, a thief in the night, but with a compulsion to make, not take. How did he go unnoticed when he had to have used a tall ladder? Suddenly, she remembered. It had been carved into Léon’s left arm. Léon had been her liaison in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoir. He was the only person whose facial scarification, hadn’t frightened or repulsed her, but had enhanced his features. Though the lines were shocking at first, she eventually found them attractive. Maybe the painting she was still staring at imposed a lot more significance than being impressively large graffiti. She had to find out what it meant.

Try it for yourself. Rummage through some old photos and see what you come up with. I hope my work with this exercise inspires.

First Story of the Lake Spirit

When she was younger, her favorite moments were swimming toward the full moon on a dark summer night. She would follow the trail the moon reflected on the lake, revealing another small part of the golden path after each smooth, silent stroke. She focused on the light, keeping her head above the water and moved slowly, trying not to make ripples on the surface. At these moments she felt one with the lake.

Once, she imagined following the moon so far that she could not turn back, eventually becoming exhausted and dying in its golden light. She welcomed this as a happy death and moved further along the path, but the lake suddenly changed. Surrounded by cold, she no longer felt welcome. Her nakedness was uncomfortable. The shore beckoned; her romantic longing to swim to the moon replaced by a need for carnal comforts: a hot shower; soft, thick blankets; and something warm to drink. Turning, she saw she hadn’t gone as far as she had imagined. She swam as quickly as she could, no longer caring about the waves and the noise she made. It felt like something was chasing her and about to grab her feet. Her burning muscles and searing lungs did not slow her. She bolted up the ladder and across the yard to the house. As she started to slide back the door, she heard a splash on the lake like the sound of a large fish jumping, making her pause to look back at the dark surface where circles of ripples moved out from the base of her ladder. Eventually, she realized that was the first time she met the lake spirit.