Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fragrant Writing

I had Pop-Tarts for breakfast today. Yes, it's pathetic that I'm eating Pop-Tarts at forty-two years of age, but I like them. So I paced around the kitchen, waiting for the toaster-oven timer to sound its sickly ping! As the timer ch-ch-ch-ch'd the seconds away, my clogs with the hard rubber soles clopped across the laminate floor, tocking and clocking each of the five steps between the counter and the refrigerator and back again. I could hear these sounds and describe them and find words for them easily. If I had to write those sounds, I think I could. I just did, right?

I can easily write about the appearance of the kitchen, the shiny stainless steel toaster-oven, the brown laminate floor, and more. I could easily describe the cool ridges of the refrigerator door or the smooth slick feel of the cold counter with a tacky ring of dried-up coffee.

But as I stepped closer to the toaster oven, I smelled the oh-so-fragrant smell of those Pop-Tarts cooking. Pop-Tarts have a unique scent as they heat up--light, slightly spicy, and sweet. Wait, can an odor be sweet? Am I doing my Pop-Tarts justice with such a common, mundane word like sweet?

What's the difference between an odor and a scent? A scent and a fragrance?
According to Merriam and Webster, an odor is a quality of something that stimulates the olfactory organ (i.e., the nose). A scent is effluvia from a substance that affect the sense of smell. Er, okay... effluvia? An invisible emanation--basically, a by-product in the form of a smell. (Think 'skunk'.) A scent is also a characteristic or particular odor, especially one that is agreeable. Ah, now we're getting a little bit more decisive. Scents are pleasant, and odors are, possibly unpleasant. But a skunk's scent is usually quite unpleasant, so there goes that theory.

Let's look at fragrance:
a sweet or delicate odor. Ah, so, yes! An odor can be sweet. Or delicate. But what does that really tell you about my Pop-Tarts? Does "sweet" really describe their fresh-baked goodness? Does "sweet" capture the effluvia of the frosting melting under the radiant heating element? How do you describe an odor and really capture its essence?

One of my writer-friends wrote a story which I recently had the pleasure of critiquing. It's about a girl who has a magical way with horses. As you can imagine, there's lots of barn action happening in the story. My friend has a magical way of bringing us to that barn using sights, sounds, sensations, and yes, smells. (Thankfully, she didn't give us a taste of the barn.) She had fabulous descriptions of the most minute details, and smells. Lots and lots of glorious smells. A foul, musky odor of a grizzly bear... the barn's usual sweet grassy scent of clean hay... Those fragrances carry us right to that barn, right into that story.

I'm the first to admit: I'm hard of smelling. That's probably why I have a hard time writing with scents. My writing doesn't stink, and that's a problem. It doesn't smell of roses, either. It doesn't smell at all! I can't capture the core of my Pop-Tarts, their luscious, blueberry
goo steaming out of the crumbly crusts. My nose just doesn't know enough to find the words. My nose needs to study up--maybe that will help my writing. Okay, in addition to sweet, what other words can I find to describe my breakfast?

In my quest for scent-sational words (ooh, that was bad--sorry), I came upon a great article from Cognitive Daily about helping to identify scents by naming them. (Read the article here: .) It would be great if I could actually smell something. I looked all over the internet--someone please GIVE me the words to use! Let me pick from a list of all the scents available, and all the descriptors that accompany odors, fragrances, and scents. Instead, I find out: noooooooo, it can't be that easy. Smelling is a very subjective sense. Sure, I could pick from a stock list of scents, but I may not be representing the very best of my Pop-Tarts if I do that.

This is getting tougher and tougher. Maybe I should just resign myself to savoring the scent of my toaster pastries on my own and not bother sharing it with the world. But I love Pop-Tarts! Whenever I smell them, I'm reminded of so many Saturday mornings when my sister and I would get up before our parents, make our Pop-Tarts and watch cartoons. That smell transports me back in time, ever so briefly, to such a lovely spot. The scent triggers that memory... what if I could bring that scent to someone else, simply using words? Is it possible?

The article "A scent is not easily put into words," by Leffingwell & Associates (a company that is "
dedicated to serving the Perfume, flavor, food and beverage community"), brought this whole in focus for me: "Although it seems to be a difficult task to remember a scent, the powers of imagination connected with the memory of a scent are immense." "It's by smell and taste alone," Marcel Proust writes, that we can recover "the vast structure of recollection." How true! Looking at a Pop-Tart doesn't take me back to my childhood, but smelling it sure does.When I think about it, Pop-Tarts aren't my only olfactory-related memory triggers. Honey suckle, pool chlorine, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls with orange glaze, stagnant creek water, wet dog... I could go on. These scents bring vivid images to my mind.

As writers, we use snippets of our memories to enhance our writing. We should pay attention to the memories that our noses bring to us. We should seek to associate smells, odors, fragrances and scents with words and images in our lives. Use your nose to sniff out meaningful memories. Take time to smell the chocolate-raspberry coffee that you smelled for the first time in a little gourmet food shop on South Street in Philadelphia. (Oh, that was me. I remember the incident clearly--the beginning of my love of coffee, and still my favorite flavored coffee.)

So, go! Inhale through your nose! Stimulate your olfactory receptors! Strengthen cranial nerve #1! Take a trip down memory fumes! And then smell the sweet smell of... better writing.

(You thought I was going to say Pop-Tarts, didn't you?)


1 comment:

david elzey said...

great post, lots of food for thought. i think it's a toss-up for me between writing about scent and writing about music, because i think both responses have such a powerful effect on the individual.

i used to wonder as a kid if people had the same vision. like, if you and i agree a certain color is called yellow, but what if our brains processed that information differently, and what we both call yellow looks like my version of red to you, and your version of blue to me? it's complicated, because we can't really see what each ohter sees, but we agree on these definitions. it was my way of explaining how some people couldn't coor-coordinate, because their color receptors were different.

as are our olfactory senses as well. there's sensitivity and then there's synaptic connections, and it all gets bundled into complicated bunches.

anyway, nice post.