Friday, April 3, 2015

Shh, what's that smell?

Anyone who has known me for more than a day knows that I have a deep rooted love for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series. While some of my friends were watching Dawson’s Creek I was venting my teen angst with some demon slaying on the side. Good times. Don’t worry, this fact is relevant to the rest of the blog.

In the first season of Buffy there was a brilliant exchange between a teacher, Jenny Calendar and Rupert Giles. He was Buffy’s watcher/mentor for those of you not familiar with the series. Jenny was trying to understand why Giles hated computers. The exchange was short, but it stuck with me.

 “Honestly, what is it about them that bothers you so much?” Jenny Calendar asked.
“The smell,” Rupert Giles said.
“Computers don’t smell, Rupert.” Jenny said.
 “I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of the knowledge should be tangible. It should be smelly,*” Rupert said.
I would be lying if I said that I hated computers or the information gained by them. It would also be an odd thing to say given the medium that you are using to read this right now.**

That’s not why the sentiments stayed with me. It was the way that he described the power of our sense of smell in such a clear and truthful way. Whenever I read a musty book with old book glue in it, it reminds me of the first time I read Jane Eyre. As you can probably guess it was an older and well loved version. I also have a friend who has a book which used to belong to her grandpa. The smell of cigarette smoke mingled with a few other scents always remind her of him. She will carefully open the book and take in his scent for a moment. It’s a tangible way to remember the man who passed away.

At the present moment it is one of the best ways to travel back in time that I know of. There’s a shift of conscious that takes place when a scent takes over. This powerful sense can help bring your readers to a place within your book as well.

As powerful as it is, I have a tendency to rely on describing sight and sound for the majority of my prose. I’m not the only one either. The vast majority of descriptions in most books are taken up by these two senses despite the power of smell. To help myself break out of this habit I occasionally test my sense of smell. No, I don’t go around trying to find the most pungent or rank thing that I can find. Although that would certainly test me, but not in the way I meant. Instead, I take a short trip over to the exotic land known as my spice rack.
It is a riff off of an activity that is suggested for toddlers. Make of that what you will. With the toddlers it’s simply about exposing them to different smells. I use it instead to pause for long enough to take in a scent and think about how I would describe it. What words I would use to help the experience come across.

Here are some of my examples:

Cardamom~ There was a soft and subtle sweetness unload by familiarity. It was the way the dirt would smell if someone had sprinkled it with sugar.

Dill~ The dill forcefully swallowed up it’s surroundings with its smell of tart spoiled grass. These are my simple examples. I hope that you give this a try. It would be wonderful to hear your own examples of describing smells. You don’t have to limit yourself to the spice rack either. It’s an easy jumping off point, but by no means where you have to stop. Breathe your world in.

I feel that I must pose a short warning though. I love Glacier National Park. The first time that I went with my family I wanted to breathe the whole experience in, literally. As we walked though the mossy cedar forest I went out of my way to take deep whiffs of my surroundings.

In my mind I thought about what a clever writer I was for taking this time to truly immerse myself in the moment. I did immerse myself and I have a solid memory of that walk, but that’s mostly because I found out shortly afterward that I am allergic to cedar. By the end of the day I had the bulbous and dripping nose of a troll. It was not a particularly pleasant experience.

Despite that, I did leave that forest with a clear feeling of what cedar trees smelled like to me. It is also a memory deeply ingrained in my mind. However, I hope that your own adventures will be much less painful.***

* There were actually a few more stutters and ums in the actual dialogue, but I decided to take them out for the sake of clarity.
 **Unless of course you took the time to print this first.
 ***Yes, I do my own pictures. Pretty obvious, and not necessarily in a good way.

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