Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Developing Your Literary Sense of Smell: Guest Blog by Nancy Lord

This is a guest blog by Nancy Lord, former Alaska State Writer Laureate and author of many books of fiction and nonfiction. Please see the end of the blog for her full bio.


Nancy Lord (photo: Stacy Studebaker)
Smell is the most fundamental of our senses, with a direct line to basic brain functions and the emotional memories associated with odors. Smell—or even just a memory of smell—triggers the release of oxytocin, associated with the ability to trust and form attachments. It’s a powerful and underused sense to include in our writing.

In “A Natural History of the Senses,” Diane Ackerman writes: “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once.”


I’m sure it’s the same for you, that certain smells take you right back to powerful childhood memories. It might be the smell of perfume your grandmother wore, coal smoke from your neighbor’s fire, or the wet fur of your beloved dog. For me, whenever I smell a freshwater lake I’m right back at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, where my family spent two weeks every summer when I was small. An instant picture of the boathouse and dock presents itself, along with the sound of lapping water, and then a whole surround of memories and strong, positive emotions. The smell of burning leaves brings me to the taste of baked apples (cored, with raisins and brown sugar added) that we used to wrap in foil and cook in the piles of raked leaves we burned along the curbs in the street where I grew up. I “feel” such smells in waves of nostalgia and emotion, as physical effects.


Try looking at a page of your writing and mark each sensory detail—of any sense—but put a bold box around any description of smell…. See if you use any of the senses. Pay special attention to whether you involve one or more smells. Do you see more opportunities to include smell and other sensory details?


It’s been said that modern literature has been “deodorized,” especially in North American writing, just as we’ve eliminated or covered up so many natural odors in our modern lives. If you look at eighteenth and nineteenth century writings, you’ll find a lot more smells—especially of bodies, death, coal smoke, etc.


Each of us reacts differently to a smell, in life and on the page. The smell of a certain aftershave will mean one thing when it’s associated with a loving father and something else if associated with a child molester. In other words, you can’t count on a certain smell to create a common response in readers—although something like fresh bread smells are probably mouth-watering for all of us, and the smell of decayed flesh is probably stomach-turning.)


So, here’s what’s happening in our brains when we smell. Smell is the oldest sense evolutionarily. It goes all the way back to creatures living in the sea that responded to chemicals in the water, even before sight, hearing, or touch. That’s why it’s called a rudimentary sense. Our brains started with smell.  You can say that we think because we smell. Only smell has a direct line to our pre-cognitive brains.


My friend Jill McCabe Johnson has said it as well as anyone, in an essay in Brevity: “A writer’s references to the other senses help readers create an imagined facsimile, but with smell, readers just know. Not only can they experience an immediate, intimate understanding, but smell might actually help readers set aside their disbelief and bond with the characters, because smell—even the memory of smell—is believed to trigger oxytocin, and oxytocin has been associated with our ability to trust and form attachments.”


Oxytocin is known as the bonding hormone and is what allows human mothers (and other mother animals) to recognize the smell of their own babies, to tell them apart from other babies.


We’re more likely to remember details grounded in the senses than non-sensory details.  Another interesting fact: because we encounter most new odors in our youth, smells often call up childhood memories. But we actually begin making associations between smell and emotion before we’re even born. Infants who were exposed in the womb to alcohol, cigarette smoke, or garlic will show a preference for those smells. To them, smells that might upset other babies seem normal or even comforting.


Brain science helps answer one more question for us: Why is it so hard to describe smells? It’s easy to sense and recognize them, but to put them into words? This is because, while the smell and memory centers are closely connected, the physiological links between the brain’s smell and language centers are, in Diane Ackerman’s words, “pitifully weak.” She’s written, “When we see something we can describe it in gushing detail, in a cascade of images... But who can map the features of a smell?”

Nancy Lord edited the collection Made of Salmon
Here are some useful words to describe smell: acidy, acrid, antiseptic, aromatic, balmy, biting, bitter, briny, burnt, citrusy, comforting, corky, damp, dank, earthy, fishy, flowery, fragrant, fresh, fruity, gamy, gaseous, heavy, lemony, medicinal, metallic, mildewed, minty, moldy, musky, musty, odorless, peppery, perfumed, piney, pungent, putrid, reek, rose, rotten, savory, scented, sharp, sickly, skunky, smoky, sour, spicy, spoiled, stagnant, stench, stinking, sulphurous, sweaty, sweet, tart, vinegary, woody, yeasty.

Here are examples of great writing about smell:


Diane Ackerman, The Moon by Whalelight:  “Their guano smells like stale Wheat Thins…” “[The whale] surfaced on the other side and blew a fine mist, which poured over us, smelling sweet, like wet fur.”


Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: “Through the smells of the bog, I caught the subtle perfume of butterfly wings on my fingers, a perfume which varies with the species—vanilla, or lemon, or musk, or a musty, sweetish odor difficult to define.”


Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia: “My grandmother lived in a red-brick house set.…Inside it smelled of church.” (p. 2) “The wind blew the smell of rain down the valley ahead of the rain itself, the smell of wet earth and aromatic plants.” (p. 63)


Tracy Kidder, Home Town: “The town is waking up… From several alleys comes the smell of baking bread . . .” “. . . the old Calvin Theatre downtown, a place of sticky floors, redolent with ancient popcorn fumes.”


Kathleen Dean Moore, Holdfast: “The smell [after a flash flood]. . . filled the gully to the brim. Heavy, dense, sweet—never has air been so sweet—it was the smell of cedars netted with the roots of sorrel, the piney dark smell of old stone churches at Christmastime.” (p. 54)


E. B. White: “The Years of Wonder”: “. . . I viewed much of our future forty-ninth state through the porthole of the fireman’s mess, and the picture has a special smell—a blend of cabbage, garbage, steam, filth, fuel oil, engine oil, exhausted air, exhausted men. It is a smell you get nowhere but in a ship.” (Essays of E. B. White)


Sandra Cisneros, “The Monkey Garden”: “And everywhere the sleepy smell of rotting wood, damp earth, and dusty hollyhocks thick and perfumy like the blue-blond hair of the dead.”


Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, The Smell of Other People’s Houses: “I’ve realized over time that houses with moms in them do tend to smell better. If I close my eyes, I can just barely remember my mother’s wildflowers in their whiskey bottles. The very distant scent of my parents lingers in my brain, as they laugh and twirl around the kitchen. Deer blood on my father’s hands tinges all my memories of them—their skin, their hair, their clothes.”


Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?: “The smell of the canvas (it always rains up north in the summer), and the smell of soup cooking for afterwards,  and the smell of damp paper printed with the hymns—that’s what Jesus smells like.” (p. 71)


Nancy Lord is a former Alaska State Writer Laureate (2008-2010). She is the author of three short story collections; five books of literary nonfiction, including Beluga Days: Tracking a White Whale’s Truths and Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-changed North; and the novel pH. Nancy Lord also edited the anthology Made of Salmon. Her work focuses mainly on environmental and marine issues. She currently teaches science writing for Johns Hopkins University. Nancy Lord lives in Homer, Alaska, where she enjoys the smells of mudflats and tide pools.  

Nancy Lord’s book include the novel pH
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, BĂ©renice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry