Brevity
Craft Essays

Brevity Home | Craft Index     |

 

The Art of Literary Olfaction, or Do You Smell That?

By Jill McCabe Johnson

noseTwo confessions: I have a big nose, and my nose leads me. Not because it’s so big that wherever I go it arrives well before I do, but because that big nose of mine takes in a lot of smells. Last night, my husband and I took the dog for a walk. Right as we stepped outside—before feeling how cool the evening was and the slight mist to the air like it wanted to rain, before noticing the mint plants looking leggy and spotted, before seeing the hazard of a hose across our path—I smelled the sweet-acrid scent of burning wood, smoke from a neighbor’s chimney that told me more about the temperature and season than any other single item I encountered. But that smell did more: it reminded me of the comfort of a fire, the radiant heat, hissing and crackling, the hypnotic flames. The smell conjured home, afghan strewn across the lap, mug of cocoa, engrossing book.

That’s a lot to pack into one little sensation and not necessarily the same thoughts and feelings that would be evoked in someone else. Still, if I ask you to recall the smells from school lunch sloppy joes, the rubber in a tire store, decomposing murk in a fish tank, or the inside of a pencil sharpener, are you transported more authentically into an experience than if I just mention a school cafeteria, tire display, dirty aquarium, or sharpened pencil?

Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalks. We think because we smelled.

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Smell speaks to our primal mind. The importance of including the sense of smell in our writing is not just to follow the age-old advice to “use sensory language” to engage the reader, though smells can engage the reader more deeply and directly than any other sense. More than that, smell acts like a laser, cutting straight through to our emotional cores.

No other sensory system has this type of intimate link with the neural areas of emotion and associative learning, therefore there is a strong neurological basis for why odors trigger emotional connections.

Rachel S. Herz, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Brown University
Scientific American, October 2011

Given the power of smell, you’d think authors would cram their work with scents, but we don’t. Open any literary journal and compare the instances of visual imagery with the number of references to smell. In fact, leaf through your favorite literary journals and see if you can find a reference to smell at all. Most “creative” writing is oriented toward the visual—what the setting looks like, what the characters look like, what the objects at hand look like—which is important. Sight is a key tool for recognition and navigating space. Yet smell informs the very basics of our survival—eating, mating, and safety from predators—and it does so on the brain’s most fundamental level. Sight and the other senses—taste, touch, sound—take a circuitous route through the brain, and the memories associated with them are subject to distortion and reprogramming. Smell, on the other hand, has a direct line to our pre-cognitive brain functioning and the emotional memories associated with each odor. 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’s presence in the olfactory bulb of the brain helps explain the important role of smell and odor in the bonding process.

Joseph M. Stookey, Ph.D.

Oxytocin … instills trust, increases loyalty, and promotes the ‘tend and befriend’ response.

Kenneth Cloke, Ph.D.

Before we start to think that smell is the writer’s new, literary magic potion, it’s important to remember that references to smell can have their downsides, too. For one, the emotions associated with specific smells vary with each person. The smell of freshly cracked pecans reminds me of Thanksgivings when my sister and I cracked nuts for each other to eat. For someone else, that same smell might trigger the alarming memory of his throat closing in a life-threatening allergic response. And one person’s perfume can be another person’s poison. For example, the chemical responsible for the earthy bouquet of a fine Roquefort or Gorgonzola cheese is the same chemical responsible for stinky feet.

The sense of smell and the molecular, genetic and physiological mechanisms make the vertebrate nose the best chemical detector on the planet.

Dr. Stuart Firesetin, Columbia University

Although my overly sensitive nose is handy for determining if my cranberry muffins are ready to come out of the oven simply by smelling the caramelization of the sugar as they bake, there are times I wish I could turn off my sharp sense of smell. Like the night my husband took me to a chichi French restaurant, nine-course prix fixe menu beginning with creamy eggs served in the shell and topped with caviar and crème fraîche. The delicate scents of egg, cream, and a faint waft of the sea were as perfectly composed as the visual display. There aren’t many flavors we actually taste: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. Everything else is actually experienced through the nose. So when we eat our food, much of the enjoyment comes from how it smells. Which is why I was so disappointed when a woman sat down at the table next to us, and I could smell her Chantilly perfume, Aqua Net hairspray, and thickly applied lipstick that had started to turn foul. After that, a couple was seated on the other side of us, and the competing smells of the man’s aftershave and mothball-infused suit fought for attention in my brain. All those colliding odors created a cesspool of stink. Which is what the military wants to do.

First, people’s heads would jerk back, their face would contort with revulsion, and then they would hold their breath for as long as possible.

Pamela Dalton, Monell Chemical Senses Center

In the search for universally offensive, weapons-grade odors, researchers have observed that people react most to scent cocktails of biological odors like vomit, body odors, poop and burnt hair, plus rotting garbage and flesh, the combination of which induced nausea, faster heart rates, and a desperate desire to get the heck out of there. Interestingly, a mishmash of odors was worse than any single odor, producing a sense of panic and causing some testers to scream. My guess is that most writers don’t want their readers to run away screaming, and although the Department of Defense may be interested in using stink-bombs as a weapon, smell is not the writer’s secret weapon, though it can be an effective tool for establishing shared experience and emotional connection. If nothing else, including smells in our writing helps create a more complete sensory picture.

In terms of cognition, mood has been shown to influence creativity with the typical finding that people in a positive mood exhibit higher levels of creativity than individuals in a bad mood. Odors can also produce the same effects. When people were exposed to an odor they liked creative problem solving was better than it was when they were exposed to an unpleasant odor condition.

Rachel S. Herz, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Brown University
Scientific American, October 2011

Ultimately, we have no more control over how, or even whether, references to smells in our writing will affect readers than we do over the effects of anything else we write, but at least we can take comfort in knowing that smell can still help us. The next time I’m stuck on a word, can’t remember what someone said, or am uncertain how to proceed in an essay, I’ll pick a sprig of rosemary, open the cinnamon canister, or squeeze a lemon. The odors just might kick-start my memory, spark creativity, or help me problem solve; at the very least they’ll put me in a good mood.

And now, the test:

 

How to Tell if You’ve Given Your Readers Adequate Olfactory Cues

~ or ~

The Nonfiction Writer’s “Does My Writing Stink?” Test

nose2Randomly select ten pages of your own writing, and count the number of times you’ve referenced odors. Award yourself one nifty Nose for every reference to odor, then use the scale below to rank yourself among your fellow writers. Note: references in your writing to freshly baked bread, cut grass, flowers, or ground coffee count as only half a Nose.

0 Noses: Back to the editing table. As a consolation, you are in good company, with the same degree of odor-inclusion as most writers in your genre.

1 Nose: A good start. Extra credit if the odor is not a food, or gives insight into character, or, better yet, serves to progress the narrative.

2 Noses: Your readers are probably engrossed by your story and are making travel plans right now to attend your next reading.

3 Noses: Congratulations! Not only does your writing stink (in a good way), but your readers, in the throes of an oxytocin high, are secretly in love with you.

4 Noses: Your editor has marked your essay for a Pushcart nomination. Your readers are buying extra copies for their friends.

5 Noses: Ringer! Tell the truth—you started out as a poet, didn’t you?

6 or more Noses: Sensory overload. Your readers feel queasy and instead of picking up the Pushcart pen your editor has pressed the Panic Button.


Jill McCabe Johnson is the director of Artsmith a non-profit organization promoting arts education and the creation of new works of art. She is the editor of Becoming: What Makes a Woman, an anthology of essays and poetry forthcoming in spring 2012 from the University of Nebraska Gender Programs. Jill has an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University Rainier Writing Workshop, and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska. She is the recipient of an artist residency from the A.P. Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, an Edgren Fellowship, and a Deborah Tall Memorial Fund Fellowship. She received the 2010 Editor’s Choice Poetry Award from ScissorTale Review, and the Paula Jones Gardiner poetry award from Floating Bridge Press. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have received Pushcart nominations, and her work has recently been published in journals such as Harpur Palate, The Los Angeles Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review.