The Scent in Literature Project: The Best Smelly Writing

Smells like a good book!

Smells like a good book!

perfume-1It’s no secret that for the past year and a half I’ve been writing a memoir through the lens of scent. What I smell has been my compass, my barometer, the way I gauge my reaction to the world and the tunnel I go through to access the memories I am writing about.

It has been a deep struggle to learn to write about scent in a way that doesn’t seem too direct or too all-consuming. Scent isn’t everything, but once you start paying attention to it, it may seem like it is. It is the perfect mind/body metaphor. The best writers understand this and know how, and when, to use it.

Part of the problem with scent in writing is that — like scent itself — it tends to sneak up you in a text and doesn’t always announce itself prominently. But that is exactly where its power emerges, in its ability to fall into the backdrop of a scene and leave a trail or a trace that isn’t always immediately recognized by readers. Because of scent’s sneakiness, we don’t always have the right vocabulary for speaking about it.

Olfactory scientist Avery Gilbert, who wrote one of my favorite books on olfactory science, What the Nose Knows, calls this the “Verbal Barrier” to scent.

“Clearly, there are plenty of words for smell. This means that the Verbal Barrier is not a vocabulary problem, it’s a cognitive problem.” — Avery Gilbert

I am deeply motivated to help people understand the power of scent and I want to see more writers exploring how to use it effectively. That’s why I’m announcing here a new web project of sorts, a single web page that will collect great, effective uses of scent in literature to show students of the craft the limitless possibilities of making their books smell — for better or worse.

Hey, I didn’t say this scent stuff was always pretty.

I’m calling it Scent in Literature: The Best Smelly Writing.

My list currently has just six items, not for lack of me running across any in my favorite books, but because I would like this to be a community project directed by tastes other than just my own. If you have a favorite example of great writing that uses scent as a metaphor, scene-setting device or just a way into the story, please add it in the comments section.

Before long, I expect this page to be the smelliest website on the web!

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Feng Shui for Book Lovers: How to Pare Down a Library

Where's Dash? My kids seem to tolerate mess more than I do these days.

Where’s Dash? My kids seem to tolerate mess more than I do these days.

HouseLast month I decided once and for all that I was going to either get rid of some books or embrace what my life was becoming: a Grey Gardens kind of gorgeous.

As a writer, I had long taken solace in studies linking messiness to creativity. Oh the ways old magazines, paper clips, half-open books, unanswered mail and yesterday morning’s cereal bowl must be sparking fireworks in my brain! But with three other people in the house, and overflowing bookshelves set to topple, the center could no longer hold. All I yearned for was an empty room, maybe some curtains billowing from a sun-drenched window. Faced with this impossibility, I found myself, over the past several weeks, becoming one of those people who can’t stop talking about feng shui.

You know feng shui. The ancient Chinese art of balancing energy in spaces. The only way you might convince a husband to buy a bed with a tufted headboard. The theory behind what every family learns eventually: Hell is other peoples’ stuff. This was not the first time I welcomed the inexplicable power of space and energy into my life.

I first latched onto the ideas of feng shui a year before when it struck me that I had three different kinds of cinnamon in my cupboard and six different salts. I was experiencing what Germans call die Qual der Wahl (the torture of choices). A friend of mine had pressed a copy of Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui: Free Yourself from Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Clutter Forever into my hand and I ended up removing at least two thirds of the items from my kitchen, which is apparently in the love center of my feng shui Bagua. Don’t ask me what this psycho juju actually means. All I know is that by clearing clutter, you make room for new energy to flow into your home. It must have worked, for within a week of decluttering the kitchen, I became a mom to a Finnish exchange student.

But the books were a different kind of trouble. To a writer, books aren’t objects or clutter – they are life blood. My lined shelves were a living diary of my reading life. I wasn’t sure how I was even going to remember what I had read, if I could be a writer without a house filled with physical books. The judgy houseguest in me tsk tsked. How could anyone get an image of who I am if they didn’t judge me by my books? And more importantly, how could I?

Naturally my first attempt at applying feng shui to the library yielded space for perhaps four more hardbacks, which I promptly filled up – and then some – over the next twelve months. But just a year later these shelves were filled to overflowing and I had found myself with a new problem. I was trying to write my first book. I was three chapters in, and I had started to believe that my packed library had taken on metaphorical meaning. There was no room on my shelves for anything new, no room in the world for this very weird idea I had to write a memoir through the lens of scent.

Then came Marie Kondo, Japan’s reigning tidiness expert, whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing already has 73 holds at my small-town Oregon library. She is everywhere these days, with her bright-eyed, doll face and nothing out of place, encouraging people to surround themselves only with objects that bring them joy. I adore her for one reason: She is a poster child for how to make your own particular mental illness into a business model. Her major feat for our culture is in finding a way to turn her OCD (I’m diagnosing here) come across as this lovely, embraceable lifestyle choice for you and, let’s hope, the people around you. Marie – I feel like I can call her Marie, we’re that close now – declutters by category, not by room. For books, she advises that you pull every volume out of a shelf in order to let it breathe and put them all on the floor.

So that’s what I did. For my second book-clearing feat, I removed every book from every bookshelf and sat there despondent in a pile of paper. I cried in this heap of books. Then I was tired, so I napped. But then, the real task: Hold each book in my hands and ask myself: Does this spark joy?

Do not open the book. Do not read the book. You ask the question and you build your discard piles accordingly.

Friends: I got rid of five sixths of my books. But what really slayed me wasn’t the number of books I was carrying in bags to Goodwill the next day. In harnessing the sense of joy I associated with the books I kept I was able to figure a couple of things out. For one, in the discarding, I found my chosen writing tribe – the writers I long to share a shelf with as opposed to the writers who I thought I should have read. Two: I made some peace with the realities of author longevity and the idea that not everything you write will hit (chucked one Franzen essay collection but kept the other). But the most revealing thing I discovered was that I had, without being aware of it, kept every memoir I had ever bought, as if this joyful connection were forged through genre alone.

The Books I Kept: My row of favorite memoir and personal writing, staring back at me, cheering me on.

The Books I Kept: My row of favorite memoir and personal writing, staring back at me, cheering me on.

Gone the useless thesauruses, away with The Elementary Particles! Goodbye to every Tom Robbins novel except Jitterbug Perfume! Sayonara to six hand-bound leather journals, each of which had only three pages hand-scrawled in them! Au revoir Jane Eyre! The purge was a clinic on my own processes, a chance to really understand who my influences were and what kind of distasteful writerly arrogance I was ready to put in the past. Did I really need two copies of T.C. Boyles Drop City? (No, just the signed one).

Marie says you must hold the book in your hand and you thank it for the role it played in your life, and then you Let It Go (cue the music). This wasn’t always easy. What yawner was I going to keep for when insomnia gripped me? (Moby Dick). And which one did I thank for putting me to sleep so often but bid a fond farewell to? (Sebald’s Campo Santo (Modern Library Paperbacks)). As two days wore on, I found myself retreating from another of my long-held beliefs – that I was somehow responsible for the books my children would encounter in the world. I was left with the conviction that if these books had found me, surely the universe would make sure that my children would find the ones they needed at the right point in their lives, too. Besides, if my mom could never interest me in the poems of Rod McKuen (Listen to the Warm, anyone?) by presence alone, surely my collection of German-language expressionist classics might find welcome elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in true before/after fashion, and much to my deep relief, the writing is going great. It is flying out of my head and through my fingers. I keep waiting for that moment of regret when I look up at the shelves with despair, when I know for sure that I trashed my treasure in some kind of misplaced spring cleaning mania, but it’s not like that at all. It’s more like seeing the bleachers from the field – a crowd cheering me on.

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Traveling by Scent in the Smithsonian

Follow your nose to know a place.

Follow your nose to know a place.

Smithsonian Magazine has a feature on some of the world’s most intoxicating scent-laden places.

“When scent can bring such pleasure, let alone health, why not indulge on your next trip?”

Now of course I’m wondering where the most scent-laden place in America are. I have a theory that because of the great moisture in the Pacific Northwest, it’s the best place in the world to go on a scent journey.
Any ideas? I’d give you lavender fields in Yamhill, the Portland Rose Test Garden, Opal Creek, Siletz Bay, and anywhere in Oregon’s High Desert.