• Prompt: Write About a Scent

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 64 comments
    Oct
    3

    Discussion questions: Write about a scent. Something from your past that triggers a memory and the feelings/thoughts/images it summons. What do you smell right now? What is your favorite smell? In what ways do you use scent in your fiction? Your nonfiction?

     

    In last week’s post, “Write About Your First Job,” WriteByNight Christina wrote this about the memory of a typewriter: “I used carbon paper and can still smell it some 45 years later.”

    It’s believed that smell is the sense most closely linked with memory. One famous example from literature — often confused as smell but in reality is taste, though the two are tightly bound — comes in Swann’s Way, volume 1 of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, when the narrator dips a petite madeleine in his tea and takes a sip, and the taste, along with the feel of the crumbs, takes him back to his childhood… and not just in a passing way.

    Here’s one of the loveliest passages I’ve ever read:

    “But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

    Isn’t that beautiful? “the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us.”

     

    Here are a few scents that can trigger me:

    — A baseball, especially if it’s dirty, especially if it’s dirty and has grass stains

    — Freshly mowed grass

    — A baseball mitt, especially just after being oiled (pattern?)

    — An old book (you know exactly what I’m talking about)

    — My dad’s cologne on his shirts

     

    What about you? What smells “remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind” you of something from your past? What kinds of feelings, thoughts, and images do they summon?

    If you can’t think of anything, describe what you smell right now. And/or what are some of your favorite smells.

    And in what ways do you use the sense of smell in your fiction? Your nonfiction?

     

    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2020 writing project you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. If you have a manuscript that’s ready for some editorial care, check out our various critiquing, editorial, and proofing servicesJoin our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Brigitte

    Good morning, I remember a scent of a rubber eraser and a freshly sharpened pencil. I think that is the reason I began writing. But who knows? Maybe I would have loved to write even if I did not find the scent of a freshly sharpened pencil enticing. I still remember my favorite eraser too. I must have been very young maybe only five or six. And one of the cereals my mom bought came with an eraser deal. Like if you send in a certain amount of box tops, one can get a free Captain Crunch eraser. I remember… Read more »

    Christina Del Pozzo

    Oh, the joy of those cereal box treasures!

    Brigitte

    I know. Whoever came up with those prizes…I am grateful.
    As a child, they were so much fun to receive. I felt special.

    Brigitte

    Nice to sometimes need to wait for something. It does help us appreciate things more when we need to wait to get something.
    I am not sure if people still do the mail in order stuff. But I do remember one time on a cereal box for Gorilla Munch…there was this thing, right. If you want to adopt a gorilla, you needed to send some money and then someone would send a photo of your personal gorilla. I wanted a gorilla so badly. But at the time, I was afraid to send money to a cereal company.

    Brigitte

    I think you must buy a pencil box. Maybe for Christmas? Oh, I sent the link about the gorilla munch cereal just in case you do not get the pencil box and decide to get the gorilla instead

    Brigitte

    I cannot believe someone would order that.
    OMG.
    No way.
    I am not sure what sort of world we are living in. But every day, I am more shocked then the next. Thanks for sharing, Jerry.

    Jerry Schwartz

    I don’t know if this is the same product, but I actually bought some composted manure from a zoo (I think it was the Bronx zoo). Think about it: they have all of those animals, so they have a lot of manure to get rid of. Instead of paying to get rid of it, they can get people to pay them for it.

    Brigitte

    Hi Jerry,
    Oh wow! I never did think about this before. But somehow I am going to think about this now. Brigitte

    Brigitte

    Hi David,
    I think you need to get yourself a pencil box already. And even if you do not fill it up right away, it might help to settle some internal need. I like to live in the moment and so IF I were you and I were passing by a store that sold pencil boxes….I would run into the store and just do it already. I want to buy one for you now. Just do it already.

    Jerry Schwartz

    Protractors were the silliest thing in the typical set. They were of no use whatsoever.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Get the pencil box. It’s expecting you.

    Raymundo

    Horse sweat. It is a distinctive odor that I haven’t run across in many years. In my youth, though, it was the smell of riding my late father’s horse over rural Mississippi fields. Of being taught to ride, correctly, by my oldest brother. Of being carried on horseback as a child on trail-rides. Times and places are evoked by this smell that remains familiar to me. I do try to note smells in my fiction to ground the reader in the “reality” I’m trying to create. In my novel, though it features horses a lot, I haven’t mentioned the smell… Read more »

    Christina Del Pozzo

    I can definitely relate to this, Raymundo. My reality of the horses in our barn was not quite specific to their sweat; rather it was a mingling of sweat, the need to clean the stalls, and the hay stored above each stall.

    Jerry Schwartz

    When my brother went through his horse phase, he refused to let my mother wash his jeans. He liked to have the smell permeate his room.

    Raymundo

    Just goes to show that positive associations can be made with most anything–smells, flavors, etc. And “barnyard” is a legitimate aroma description for a fine wine.

    Christina Del Pozzo

    As I sit at my computer to write my mother’s life and legacy, I can attach a specific smell of each person in the family. For my mother, I attach the ever-present smell of apples. A widow with six children in the mid-20th century did all she could to feed her children. The 33 apple trees on our farm sustained us quite amply. To my father, I attach the scent of his raunchy cigar that he would set down to play hide-n-seek at a moment’s notice, and his darkroom chemicals that produced a legacy of all the family photos I… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    So far as I recall, I’ve only used scent in one story. One of the main characters is portrayed as a tightly wound, career-centered woman who seems completely closed off. “I noticed her fragrance: incredibly complex, with notes of gardenia, strawberry, jasmine, tobacco, and more. I’d never run into anything like it. I don’t know what I had expected her to smell like…tempered steel?” That was a work of fiction, although (like so much else) it draws on an actual experience. The day I lost my last job, I decided to go window shopping. That’s usually meant jewelry or electronics,… Read more »

    Last edited 21 days ago by Jerry Schwartz
    david lemke

    I try to use not just the five or six senses in my fiction, but also the other 51 senses, sense of motion, directional perception, body size, memory, balance, proximity; the list is huge. I often use taste and smell together, tied to food and drink; my dad lover Limburger cheese, I actually liked it as a kid, but I had a hard time getting past the smell of rotting unwashed feet. Since Covid, Sue and I , nightly enjoy a bottle of wine at our patio table with a paired cheese and baguette and often conversation goes to smelling and… Read more »

    david lemke

    So he/she is a ghost? That works in real life.
    Much of wi is being stupid. We keep setting records. I read that bars are full and ignoring guidelines. So far we are ok. How are you doing?

    david lemke

    I have no problem writing, but writing fiction is next to impossible; maybe because reality is so much more unbelievable and scary than what I can write. It makes the Handmaiden’s Tale” and “The Hunger Games” pale by comparison

    david lemke

    Nothing happens, which, is of course the problem. The last two time I sat with the intent that I would advance this story, Vermin, an ogre who joins a writing group, and I fixed two grammatical errors, that’s it. Most times now I’m too busy to sit; we had a tree taken down and I have to load the trailer and haul it all to the dump, I replaced stone steps with concrete and brick steps with a hand rail, and I installed a new kitchen cabinet and countertop, plus I obsess, looking at coronavirus and political statistics and news… Read more »

    david lemke

    Long short story or novella. first draft is far along.

    Barbara Mealer

    The scent of a freshly made cherry pie and baking bread takes me back to my grandmother and how she was this typical grandmother who was always cooking this great food, an apron on to protect her dress since she never knew who would drop in. My grandfather was a preacher who was quite imposing but I loved how he would challenge my beliefs, making me want to learn more. They did more to shape my live than all but one teacher who told me that I needed to quit hiding that I had an intellect and use what I… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    They do if you have a lot of friends. She was a preacher’s wife and they had company that would show up without warning and she always seemed prepared from the flowers decorating the house that had nothing out of place but yet felt homey with food and tea to serve all on china. Very 20th century.

    Sandy

    THANKS for this prompt. Well on my way with a poem called “Youth Dew,” a warning that my mom was near!
    Why, oh why, can’t I write anything but poetry since this damn pandemic began? As my last-of-a-trilogy languishes at .doc ….

    Sandy

    Amen! March produced six poems published in April … four about the virus. Here is my dubious poetry of Youth Dew (an Estee Lauder fragrance). Youth Dew It’s what she wore, my mother— like breaking news or a brazen alarm, a burly scent preceding the push of shoulders back, ears alert like a coyote sniffing out the rabbit. Mother on her way, beware which moods crop up through air— her stout scent constant, no wilting violet wafting, no waning vanilla drops— but the bold draft of spice,  of ambers and rose and patchouli robust— a heavy proclamation for a woman’s… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    Wonderful poem!
    My mother and her SIL gravitated toward Tabu, another “burly” scent. (Love your use of that word.)

    Sandy

    <strong>Thank you,</strong> Elissa. I remember liking Tabu when I was young. Fragrances really do elicit memories.

    Sandy

    Thanks, David. That made me laugh … but I’m ready for the end of isolation. Just hope there are lessons learned. Have a great autumn week.

    Susan

    That last stanza made me cry. Beautiful poem.

    Sandy

    Thank you so much, Susan. I do remember how that woman’s hugs moved me so, her fragrance like my mom’s. She moved to Florida, and I hope she’s still well.

    Jessica

    Walking around outside, smelling the smell of dry urine, transforms me to the age of 12, walking into the hall of my apartment building.  I never knew if I would walk in on someone relieving themselves behind the door.  The first time I did, it was cold outside, dark inside.  The smell got to me before the sound.  I didn’t know what to do.  Should I wait, walk past as if nothing was happening, or run.  I ran…down the hall and up the stairs, three levels as fast as I could, straight through my door and locked it.  My heart… Read more »

    Jessica

    Thank You, No, I have not. I am hoping to one day write a bio of my life, but I can’t seem to find time to start….. I’m worried I won’t do well, and need to organize my thoughts more. and I need to make the time.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Burning rubber. I was a child, screaming in the back seat (of a green Dodge Demon, if memory serves), begging my father to stop driving because I was going to throw up. But he didn’t want to stop, and he kept driving, and the dented bumper kept grinding against the tire, sending up a noxious cloud. My mother finally prevailed. The accident had sprained her arm, but we were otherwise uninjured. I don’t recall where my father pulled off the midtown Manhattan avenue, probably a gas station. A car full of teenage boys had T-boned us, running a red light off a side street. They must… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    Glad you and your mom came out of that spin unscathed!
    I was college-aged, in the car with my parents, when we did a 360 after one of NYC’s infamous ice storms. After we caught our breath, we saw cars around us all abandoned on the road. I forget how we finally got out of that mess, but we finally did.

    Jerry Schwartz

    Fortunately my snow story ended happily.I took my DMV road test in a snowstorm. The examiner must have figured that if I didn’t get us both killed, that was good enough for a passing grade.

    That evening I took some friends out for a joyride and wound up in a snowbank. It was a good thing I had a car full of friends to push me out.

    John Liebling

    Ugh! BANANAS! I don’t mean the silly Woody Allen movie about fiddy years ago… I am told by my mom as a kid, I mean little kidlet under the age of seven, I enjoyed eating bananas. When I was in second grade, about seven years old, and fiddty-five years ago…I took a wiff of a metal lunch box, with a rotting banana inside, and from that point forward I can’t get near them…just the sight brings on my gag reflex… Of course this is all psychological… After my dad reached his late 80s I knew it was time to take… Read more »

    John Liebling

    Or nuts in Government…How are you and Justine holding out in NY? Lots of people are escaping because of Covid…

    John Liebling

    Far off topic, or is it? Since 2020 stinks…

    Bob Dylan had (has) no voice, and yet he’s already a great lyrical voice…

    Recently listened to his creation sung by a group from the 60s, with great harmony…

    Judith Durham and the Seekers singing The Times Are a-Changing

    Wow do those lyrics fit our times…

    Susan

    Once when I told a teenager that I was lactose intolerant he started laughing uncontrollably because the superhero he was reading about in a comic book was lactose intolerant. That was his kryptonite. It struck me that fear of bananas could also be a funny Achilles’ heel for a superhero.

    Susan

    Thank you for reminding me to evoke the sense of smell more in my own writing.    I don’t have a lot of time to gussy this up much, but I have always loved the smell of cow manure.  We used to spend summers on my grandmother’s farm in Iowa, and that smell was the first one to greet me every morning when the rooster woke me up. The farm was the greatest place in the world for city kids to visit, and all six of us kids loved everything about it, from the 100 Johanns in the attic, the ancestral photos dating… Read more »

    PAUL A. LIEBOW

                Smells of Clamming   Up before dawn in our thin lawn’s grassy mist  and into our old punt Olga and the slight smell of smarmy old paint and yesterday’s wet rope   clutching my clam hoe with a little dried mud, a full Moon riding down slowly into the west, an outgoing tide flowing fresh from the marsh.   I bend over fresh wet mud flopping over easy  by a small muddy rise with at least 30 holes, before the green crabs seethed in so hungrily   on the flood tide of the global warming myth. I’m smelling the pop… Read more »




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