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!

Want to read more? Follow me on Twitter or Facebook, or you can read some of my writing at

Setting up a home perfume studio


HouseWe have a decent-sized house — not too big, not too small — so you’d think I’d be able to find a place in a home to set up a mad scientist’s laboratory, no? You can’t be a home perfumer if you’re not doing it in your home, right?

But here’s the thing about home perfuming. If you’re doing it as a hobby, or even as an escape at the end of the day, after the hours of making puzzles, baking banana bread, prepping dinner, trips to the park, all of the fun of the afternoons, you’re going to need a space to spread out. I thought about trying this on my kitchen counter, but the idea of being able to look at all of the perfuming ingredients and materials while I went about the business of tending my children throughout the day just about broke my heart.

So I’ve been thinking long and hard about where I might set up shop inside of our house, a room where I could be able to drop the perfuming in an instant and return to it when I am ready and able. I could make a statement about needing A Room of One’s Own, but I’m pretty sure my husband might point to all of the other rooms I’ve co-opted already and remind me how he has pretty much been pushed into a lone bench in an overflowing garage.

I’ve finally settled on our laundry room as the place to set up my home perfume workshop. The laundry room has a lot of advantages. For one, it’s upstairs — not likely to get in the way of the real work I do here everyday in the kitchen. It has a great counter that I am not using at all. It has its own sink, which will soon cease to overflow with reusable Bum Geniuses. And since I’m going to be perfuming at night, when my children are sleeping and the washer and dryer are dormant, the chances of the room being flooded with the smell of laundry detergent are minimal.

Room of one’s own? Check.

In my quest to learn about home perfuming I will be working through Mandy Aftelier’s The Natural Perfume Workbook I, which has a handy list of items to order before you can jump into all of the sniffing and the mixing and the sifting and the inhaling. The list is helpful, but it doesn’t suggest where one might acquire some of these items, so I’m including links to the specific locations of the tools I’ve tracked down for my own studio.

Home Perfuming Supplies

In the name of transparency and information-sharing, I’m listing some of the items I’ve ordered, mostly from Amazon, to set up shop.

  • Fragrance Testing Strips 
    I wasn’t sure where to go for this particular tool, so I found some strips made specifically for fragrance testing on Amazon. As I interact with more perfumers I plan to learn where others source their materials.
  • 60 small bottles
    These seem like a decent size for the experiments listed in the book.
  • Labels
    God I love a good label.
  • 2 lb. beeswax
    This is, by all accounts, way more beeswax than you would need to make solid perfumes, but I got sucked in by the packaging.
  • Lip gloss jars
    Ms. Aftel’s book starts you out with solid perfumes (she says it’s easier to make a good solid perfume with fewer essences). So I’m starting with these simple plastic jars with the hope that within time I’ll find some suppliers that make a sexier little pot for my perfumes.
  • Bamboo scoop
    I’m not sure this is the right sized scoop — I’m looking for something that will hold about 5 drops of solid concretes — but I’ll find out when I get it.
  • Electric burner
    If I’m going to be working in the laundry room, I’m going to have to have a hotplate there with me.
  • Grater
    The grater will be to grate beeswax. I ordered one of the cheapest around, not thinking it important to have a super grater at this point. We’ll see if this works out for me.
  • Alcohol
    Ms. Aftel recommends 190 proof undenatured alcohol

Stirring rods: Picked up a couple of simple wooden bamboo chopsticks at the local Goodwill

This, of course, doesn’t even include all of the essential oils I’m ordering. Check back in soon for my next post, which will be about what essential oils I’m starting out with and to see how I’m transforming this space into my little second-floor smell station!

Have you set up a space anywhere in your house for your hobby?

The Scent of New Beginnings


perfume-1Well, it’s here.

I came home yesterday after a weekend retreat with some friends at Opal Creek ancient heritage forest to discover that Mandy Aftelier’s Workbook One for novice perfumers arrived in the mail on Saturday.

Did you ever order something so completely outside of your realm of expertise off the Internet, have it arrive in a beautiful package and then have an out-of-body experience, where you wonder who you are to have done this and how dare you and what does this mean? And then that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach: What have I gotten myself into?

That is me, holding Workbook One, knowing that the fact that there is a Workbook One means that there is also a Workbook Two out there, and perhaps even more.

I am the last person in the world to be starting a new hobby. I have two kids under the age of three, a husband who is, if you can believe it, even more into cuddling than I am, a writing business, a family business, a part-time volunteering job at my son’s school, a house, two cats, a garden, a quilting obsession, and a strong belief that all of us should be doing less.

I am also, apparently, a crazy person who orders giant at-home perfuming courses.

Something happened to me several months ago. I was shopping in Portland and came across Heather Sielaff’s line of natural perfumes, OLO. The were just lovely, like nothing I’d ever encountered before. I started wearing Dafne, which was mixed to smell like the daphne flower that blooms in this area of the country at the end of February.

I want to bloom in winter, too!

It was something I actually wanted to put on my body — not the overpowering, chemically commercial perfumes, but something that smelled real, didn’t turn me into some kind of Charlie Brown character with wafts of unctuous and jarring scent radiating off my body.

Then, I found more of them. I interviewed Heather Sielaff, and I fell down that journalist’s rabbit hole where you fall in love with the thing you are writing about (natural perfume, though Heather is lovely, too).

Then, I discovered her, the grand dame of American natural perfuming , Mandy Aftelier, who I have been following on Twitter, and whose book Essence & Alchemy I devoured in a single sitting. I started sneaking in to Cacao, our favorite Portland chocolate shop, every chance I could get to get a whiff of her tiny fragrance, Cacao, which is sold there in a bottle about the size of a tiny brandy bottle (if Barbie drank brandy).

You must assume that a chocolate perfume smells like chocolate. Oh no. It’s like you’re floating on a vanilla bean pod down a river of chocolate with orange blossoms and jasmine blooming above you.

So here I am. I’ve got Workbook One, I’ve got some essential oils coming to me in the mail, and I’ve got that tingly new beginning feeling, like I’ve found something I just want to inhale until I can’t hold it anymore.

Wish me luck! I’ve got a new subtitle…

The birth of a sniffaholic


perfume-1I remember vividly the first time I was mortified in front of a stranger. I was 14 years old and my mother had taken me to our pediatrician for a routine check-up. I remember sitting in the waiting room and wondering how  I — with my softly rounded beignet breasts, my tall-for-my-age height and Stephen King readings tastes — belonged in this room of Parents magazine, rattle toys and grimy babies.

But no bother. I was already getting used to pulling away — to having a life of my own not recognized by the adults around me, secrets of my own, an inner self that was exploring and learning and discovering without the burden of being conscious about it.

People talk a lot about how terrible it is to be a teenager, but remembering it now I know it was a great time to be  a person in a body.

My check-up was normal and I had already edged forward in my chair when my mother brought up something she hadn’t even talked about with me yet.

“Emily, do you think we should talk about your little problem?” she said.

“Um… what problem.”

Teenagers talk in declarations, by the way, not questions.

“You know, the soap sniffing.”

I had been taking a lot of baths. How much is a lot? Every night, for an hour and a half to two hours, I had been submersing myself in about two feet of water in our upstairs bathroom. What in the world was I doing up there?  Well, looking back I think I might have been watching my breasts grow until they were two floating islands poking out through the top of the water. Or maybe I was seeing how far my big toe would fit into the water spout. Or perhaps I was memorizing the ingredients of on a bottle of shampoo and saying methylchloroisothiazolinone until it became something of a mantra, or at the very least spoken-word poetry.

I was doing all of these things, but more than anything else, I was smelling a bar of Safeguard.

Safeguard is a pretty harsh soap to use on your skin. But at the time it was all I knew, and I was completely in love with it. It was clean and the texture was just slightly rough in my hands. I developed a way of massaging a bar of Safeguard with my hands, rolling it between my palms in order to produce a mass of bubbles as large as a hydrangea bouquet. Then I would pop them with my nose and inhale the scent.

Lather. Pop. Repeat.

There is a perfect moment in the life of a bar of Safeguard, by the way. When your hands have rounded the curves on the four corners, reduced the volume by about half and made it into an almost flattened egg shape, that’s when you know the soap is at the perfect phase for making scent bubbles.

“I don’t have a soap problem, mom,” I whispered to her in the doctor’s office.

“She’s carrying a bar of soap around with her,” Mom said.

“Really, I just like the smell.”

I liked the smell so much that when the bars of Safeguard got beyond their ideal size and shape for popping soap bubbles I would dry them out on the counter and then carry them in my pocket at school.

I was a girl with a C-cup in eighth grade. Enough said.

Soon, my friends knew me as the girl with the soap. I started getting soap gifts from people and amassed a small collection — Cherry bath beads, pristine, paper-wrapped Crabtree & Evelyn soaps shaped like shells and a green glycerin hippo. But it was always the bar of Safeguard I had in my pocket, ready to be whipped out at a moment’s, notice, a teenager’s talisman.

It was never about the shape, and I didn’t have any unfortunate OCD obsession with cleanliness. It was the smell — the act of inhaling, of finding the best way to get that scent, of smelling that scent when I really needed it, of where that scent took me, which in this case was back to the bathtub, and total, complete, unadulterated solitude.

“I think she’ll grow out of it,” Dr. Boben told my mother.

Guess what.

I grew out of Safeguard. But I didn’t grow out of the traveling through smell.