Thursday, October 1, 2015


Without getting into metaphysics, let’s agree that we have five senses: Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch. Okay with you?

One of the most basic tenets of writing—essay, story, poem, letter, note to your kid's teacher, whatever—is that the author include sensory detail. Helps the reader get in on the act--communication takes place.

Some sensory detail is pretty easy to do—sight is probably the easiest, if your eyes are reasonably dependable. You can describe a purple iris, orange Mini Cooper with a missing headlight, green tee-shirt with holes all over; a tiny seed to be planted, a dog big as a small house; a wagon with one wheel missing; porch steps that sag to starboard. . . .

Hearing also seems to be doable. We have tons of words for types of sounds—whispers of leaves, crunch of snow underfoot, snap of bonfire flames, roar of the football fans at the school game.

Taste and Touch are both friendly with simile—something tastes smooth like ice cream, has the feel of rough wool.

That leaves the sense of Smell. This one is much more difficult to pinpoint. We can use comparison—the air smells like fresh spring rain. But then, we have to know how fresh spring rain smells. Or, Grandma’s kitchen smells like the cinnamon and nutmeg she uses in her apple pies. Works for me, but does it work for you?
The sense of Smell is thought to be the most evocative of the senses.

Marcel Proust wrote seven large volumes of a novel, Search for Lost Time (also called Remembrance of Things Past) in which he wrote about the fragrance and taste of a madeleine he’d eaten as a boy, which evoked such a strong memory that he explored it in great depth.

Proust’s method was to describe the immediate pastry he’s eating, to realize the intensity of the sudden memory that appeared to him, and then to recall the memory itself in detail—a madeleine he was given, as a young boy, by his aunt when he went to say good morning to her in her boudoir.

(The madeleine is a type of sponge cake, baked in a special pan that produces shell-shaped pastries. It is often flavored with lemon and contains ground nuts, usually almonds.)

I know people who say they love the smell of coffee perking, but they never drink it because they don’t like the taste!

Then there’s bacon frying. Nowadays so many of us have given up eating fried foods, I don’t know how anybody can wake up on time, even if they don’t imbibe.

Toast—now there’s a nose tickler. But only if it doesn’t get to the charred point. (I recall being told as a child that eating burnt toast would make my hair curly. Then a few years later my mom gave me a home perm. Hmmm. . . . Apparently the amount of burnt toast has something to do with the amount of curliness.)
How do you describe smell to a child?

I recall saying, “Doesn’t that smell good?” when cookies were baking.

Or, “That rose has such a sweet smell.”

Or, “Empty the cat pan before it begins to smell.” (They knew what that meant, all right.)

We talked about the smell of burning oil in a car that needed service. Or rather, was ‘way beyond needing service. We sniffed the air and said rain was coming; there was something that triggered the memory of rain. Or after a rain—what we later learned was ozone that seemed to bring a freshness we’d been missing.
In the 1960s we were exhorted to “stop and smell the roses on the way.” Not literal roses, necessarily, but a reminder to slow down, pay attention, notice what’s around you. May be good. May be not so good. But notice it anyway.
Now that Autumn has arrived and I’m smiling a lot, I begin to notice autumnal fragrances—fresh crop apples, dry leaves (already quite a few on the ground), last-chance grilling sessions (hot dogs cooking wafts through the neighborhood). If you go to bonfires, you’ll catch the sweet smell of marshmallows, if they haven’t gone too far and give off a carbonized odor; a chili cook-off will fill your olfactory sense with hot spices; and if you’re very, very lucky, somebody dear to you will bake an apple pie with the new fruit just on the market, and your mouth will water at the anticipation of sugar and spice and everything nice.

Celebrate your sense of Smell today. Autumn is a great time to celebrate. But don’t forget Winter’s evergreen trees and holiday cookies and fruit cakes and spiced cider and hot chocolate . . . .

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