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Monday, June 22, 2009

"Scent"sational Memories

There is nothing that shows me the obviousness of God more than nature. The first thing I do each day is step outside and inhale because the scent of nature sticks with me like nothing else does. It's like my own little God-manufactured scratch-n-sniff right outside my back door. Whatever He's working on out there, morning is the best time to get a whiff of it. Lilacs in the spring. Petunias and basil in the summer. The spicy decay, of all that was green, in the fall. Crisp frost in the winter.

This morning, and for the past few, I had a difficult time inhaling. It's very difficult to take a strong, deep breath when you're in a steam furnace. We've been clocking high temps in the mid 90s for about a week now. The humidity is so thick I could probably wash my hair in it. Right now, for example, it's 10:15 p.m. and it's 72 degrees -- sounds nice, right -- but it's 94% humidity. So it feels like it's about 180 degrees out there. You can only imagine what it feels like when it's midday and 95 degrees. That sticky, muggy, stagnant air causes a traffic jam when it hits the bottle neck at my nostrils, and I smell nothing. Every time we walk outside my son says, "I can't breathe out here."

So I can't put words to the smell outside right now, and I'm disturbed by that. I like to have words for my sensations. There's an uneasiness in me that refuses to pass until this weather breaks.

A very fast-moving storm just passed through. I want to know if it smells different -- we haven't had rain for a few days. Hold on...

Oh yes, the rain brought some fresh, dry air. I could smell petunias and clean earth when I stepped out onto my deck, and a soft, silent breeze is blowing. WSMV needs to update it's weather page because it is definitely not 94% humidity now.

All of this makes me think about writing. About three months ago I had a lesson on sensations in my Christian Writer's Guild program. One question said, "How might descriptions highlighting one of the five senses enhance a reader's experience?" Here was my answer:

"I know that using a variety of senses in writing can really bring a setting to life in a reader’s mind. When I write, I don’t want someone to simply read about it, I want them to experience it.
The one thing that always pulls me back to or into a setting is that smell. I can smell something I haven’t smelled in twenty years and suddenly I am transported back to a moment in time when I came across that smell before. The smell of fresh ginger root growing somewhere, for example, instantly takes me back to my childhood camp on the riverside, the mountains behind it thick with fresh ginger root growing wild, the scent absorbed by the forest surrounding it. To me, capturing the details of scent can bring writing to life like nothing else can. If written well, a reader can actually smell a description of eucalyptus mint; mountain oxygen; mist rising off of a river; a damp, muddy cave; fresh vanilla mingling with wild mountain fern; the smell of a dog after he’s rolled around on a rotting wild animal carcass; and the difference between the smell in the air of a snow storm headed for the lush mountains of West Virginia and a snow storm headed for the dense, urban metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia."

And it's those descriptions of scent -- the kind that a writer can describe so well it puts a taste in your mouth -- that make a book or story memorable. You may not remember a man giving his dog a bath, but if the man's eyes are watering and he's gagging as he douses the skunk-sprayed dog in tomato juice, the scent of that scene gets branded onto your brain making it difficult to forget. And many times, that's all you need to take you back to a story.

In honor of the Facebook quiz, "Which crazy writer are you most like," I picked up The Road by Cormack McCarthy. I was most like Cormack McCarthy. :) In the book, a man and his young son are two of the very few people left on a post-apocalyptic earth. They are starving and McCarthy's writing is so vivid and pure that I was starving for them. I was so enmeshed in the lives of the two and so worried about their fate that I couldn't put the book down -- I read it in three sittings. After five days without food, they wander upon a field and find some dried apples. By the time they get there, I am so hungry for them that I can smell and taste the apples as if I were there. All McCarthy had to write was that they found some dry apples. I will never forget the smell and taste of those apples, and he never had to describe it. He just built the scent through anticipation. He uses this technique flawlessly throughout the book.

How does scent capture you? Do simple scents conjure up distant memories? Are there books or stories vivid in your mind because of a scent the author described?


  1. Yvonne said...

    HI Karen, I enjoy nature too. We live in the woods in Maine (only been in the 60's this month). Nice plug for!
    Keep posting your thoughts on here.


  2. Sue said...

    Where are you in the CWG course, Karen? I'm on Lesson 42 of the Apprenticeship course. My mentor just retired and I have a new mentor now which I'm finding difficult to switch at this late stage, but I'm trusting God knows all about it ;-)

    I will need to get out and sniff nature more... although in the City, there's not much "refreshing" to whiff ;-)

  3. Karen said...

    Bad spelling error -- thanks for catching "whiff" for me, Sue. I hate it when I mess up spelling.

    I'm on lesson 10. I'm usually working 2 or 3 lessons ahead, but I'm a little bogged down with this one and it's due in a week. I can't seem to get it just right.

    What a bummer to get a mentor shift near the end of the course. I would expect it moving from Apprentice to Journeyman. But, retirement is understandable too. I'm sure God has it all under control. Hang in there.

  4. Anonymous said...

    All this description of the hot, humid, weather - which makes me think of sweat - in all honestly is something I can miss. The hot and humid weather remind me of the messes we make in our life, life's little boiler pot's. The sweat is our stink of sin, yuck! Then God, in His amazing wisdom sends the rain and washes ALL clean. How blessed we are - it is called Amazing Grace. Because we could of become more putrid, but instead, the wonder nature smells become evident and we can walk in His presence.

  5. Karen said...

    T - You really should start a blog. Seriously. Let me know if you want to and I'll help.