So I’ve told you that I’ve come to Venice with writer friends. Inevitably, the writer friends and I sit down and teach each other writing, work on projects, and do writing exercises as a group.
This time my good friend Ann brought a series of perfume oils for us each to smell. Smell is one of the most powerful senses, she said, and one that people all-too-frequently neglect in their work. I’ve always loved smell–I love the emotions it evokes even in description. I love the universality of it. I love its impossibility to really describe except in terms of food or known smells.
In any case, when Ann had us smell each of the oils, we had to write down what came to mind. An image or images. An emotion. A character. A memory.
I thought you might find my results interesting. Obviously I can’t transport the starting smell across the internet, sadly! But perhaps you’ll get an idea of what they were to start with from the descriptions.
Here we go:
Vanilla shortbread roasting in the oven while a doughy woman with large arms beats a bowl of rich orange frosting with almond liquor. You walk into the bakery and the smell hits you in the face. A small poodle sits on a royal purple pillow on a table next to the door, a chair set next to it so it can get down whatever it likes. It barks at you, and you pet it. You pet its wiry curls, and breathe in the roasting shortbread smell. The cookies are almost burned, you think.
The doughy woman looks up.
A sea anemone unfurls its spiraled arms as the last dying ember of sun disappears from the ocean. A passing squid squirts its ink and the darkening water turns black and thick. The anemone tenses up, pulling in.
A diver ambles by, small and steady, a stranger in the void. He is looking for experience, for treasure. He is sad.
Dark violet wood shaves under the round tool of the alien artisan. Back and forth he lathes, shavings scattering like silken spores, rich dark oily scent of mahogony pooling in the air, redolent of summer days and calloused hands, a bend that will one day be a throne fit for a queen, set and still, strong and forever.
Castle lighter than air, spun of floating pastel dreams and quiet bow-string sighs. The scent of a violin, playing in the wind, a thin woman with a pale face and long fingers pouring her soul into the strings. Cotton candy, the suggestion of sweet nothing, the air of flat kindness, the memory of pale days long gone.
You board the ferry, a pastel world around, reaching for clouds and lesser things, looking at the impossible living behemouth in front of you, lighter than air and fragile. You look into its eye, larger than the floating ship that holds you, and wonder at the spun half-gone wonder of the universe.
Blackberries and German chocolate cake on an afternoon after school. A Spanish shawl, lace doilies, the loom of a child’s plaything, the browns of a small house, a large fireplace, the textured nothing of eighties interiors, a small white dog sniffs my hand while my mother asks how my day was. I reach out and touch the dirty slate of the fireplace and feel its coolness on my hand, the powdery smell of the fireplace, the brisk marsh behind the doors outside.
Christmas in the desert, orange gingerbread Christmas ornaments delivered by the Gibsons next door. You go out to watch the rain, while endless rounds of bridge go on behind you, a cheerful Golden Retriever in and out, in and out, while your grandmother complains about the mailman.
The big climbing tree sits above the rocks in front of the house, its branches bouncing in the windy rain, and you wonder if you are too old to climb it. There are books upon books inside, and you see a small lizard dart under a rock to get out of the wetness. Ahead, the luminarios across the street sputter and go out as the evening turns to dusk and the rain soaks the paper and extinguishes the candles. You hear sounds of Christmas music behind you, a choir of children.
Paul Martel says
As I began to read the first description, I found myself imagining the smell of vanilla. It seemed like something in my brain was trying to make my nose smell what I was reading. As I read the other descriptions, my brain kept trying, and my nose too, but that began to fade and change. The words were so descriptive and imaginatively written that something else took over. It was that joy of reading words so beautifully strung together by an artisan of words that I have appreciated all of my life. I found myself wishing that I could describe things that way. Thanks, Alex, I really enjoyed your smell induced descriptions. Have you ever written a story where the character’s sense of smell was so enhanced that it took him or her physically away?
Hi Paul. Thank you kindly! I had a lot of fun writing these. No, I’ve never written someone with that kind of sense of smell, but it’s a good idea. I suspect it would grow too much for a full novel, but a short story would be greatly improved. Thanks for the feedback 🙂
Monica Rodriguez says
Wow! I’m so impressed with the inspiration and power behind scents and smells. I’m going to have to try this out. What an amazing way to put yourself in a moment, or even as a writing prompt for new writing. Really enjoyed the scenes you sketched out. Great way to highlight the power of the sense of smell and what it can do for our stories.
Alex R. says
Well, clearly Adam needs to take Isabella to Europe. So don’t forget to keep all receipts and write this off (ha! A pun!) as a business trip.
Monica Rodriguez says
THAT is an awesome idea!