It’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.
“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!