It’s a well-known fact that smells are linked in some strange way to our memory, such that a smell can trigger a memory that we didn’t even know we had. Somehow, smells by-pass the logic circuits in our brain and hit right at the heart (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor).
And yet smells are notoriously difficult to describe. They certainly are for me, and I must say that the writers who do it well stand out to me precisely because they are a minority: smells are hard.
I think that part of this is to do with the fact that, while it’s pretty easy for most of us to close our eyes and visualise a scene, even to hear a scene, it’s a lot harder to ‘envisage’ smells. I can remember experiencing what cut grass smells like, I can remember knowing what it smells like, I can use a handful of words that beat around the bush of what it’s like – but try as I might, I can’t make myself imagine that I smell it. I just can’t remember that well, or in that much detail.
It’s not like I haven’t tried, mind you. I’m always trying to fix smells in my mind, for precisely this reason (one of the reasons why we fall back on clichés when we describe smell, I think, is that we lack the ability to recreate it for ourselves and thus find a new way to describe it) – but it never seems to work.
This is an interesting problem in and of itself: how much is smell necessary in good writing? How can we authentically represent the neglected sense?
But it’s also, today, a lovely metaphor for something I’m experiencing with quite a few stories of mine lately.
I’m working on some shorts that I put down a while ago. I put them down because while I thought I knew where they went, they’d just... lost impetus. As it turns out, they’d lost impetus, drive, momentum, motivation, whatever you want to call it, because although I thought I knew where I was going, I actually didn’t. Trying to force story to go where it isn’t meant to go and where Muse/Right Brain/pick-a-term doesn’t want it to go equals block, flopped story, or broken draft.
But I’ve pulled them out, and I’m working on them again, and perhaps because I’ve been teaching my little year sevens recently about the importance of listening to both sides of your brain when writing, I’ve been keeping an ear out for my muse – and she’s been speaking.
But here’s the metaphor: she’s not speaking loudly. I have a sense of the story, but no actual knowledge of it. I have the smell of it, but I can’t actually smell it – and I don’t know how to describe what it smells like.
Like a scent I smelled yesterday, it lingers in my mind, memorable, poignant even – but vague.
I have the smell of these stories – but somehow, I need to coax them out into the light of day, into the here and now, so that I can actually experience for myself what they are, and know them.
Random thought of the day. There you go.