Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
It’s lilac season here in the Hudson Valley. This means starting from a few days ago and running for maybe another three or four weeks, when I saunter up our driveway toward the main road and pass the light purple buds popping out from this sacred shrub’s blooms, I travel. Or when I stroll through our peaceful local cemetery for my morning walks, I remember. Or when I drive, way below the speed limit with all windows open, down that one village street in my neighborhood, lined for almost a whole block by what feels like a canopy of lilacs, I breathe in and hold it an extra beat.
Sure, lilacs are pungent in the best of ways and that alone creates an olfactory vibe that’s got its groove on, big time.
But they do more than just emit that distinct smell from their fancy blooms. They ignite memory in the fiercest of ways.
Enter poet, doctor and teacher Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. who drives home this point about the ferocity of scent: “Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.”
As a writer who was once a kid who grew up in a brick ranch with one treasured lilac bush in her front yard, this aroma continues to fertilize my writing. Now when I smell them, the universe offers material. My material. Glimpses of scenes and moments along the way (way=life) that feature lilac-scented air, along with bursts of the purple flora:
My mother wraps lilac blooms she clipped from our bush in wet paper towel and a sheet of aluminum foil, then hands the homegrown bouquet to me as I head out the door for school. I’m probably eight or nine or ten. “Give these to your teacher and don’t mess the blooms,” she says. “Nothing like lilacs!”
Late-April, 2000. I smell them even before they open. My nose knows because my womb grows.
Paper towel and tin foil again wrapped around the cut stems, flowers sticking out the top. This time a red or yellow satin ribbon tied in a bow around the wrinkly wad of foil. It’s school concert season and I will not be buying flowers for anyone.
About two months into lockdown during this global pandemic and I walk along the paths where the dead gather. Lilac air follows me and I think I hear my mother’s voice in the sweet humidity. There are caresses, too. I’m sure of it.
Memories. Imaginations. Sentiments and associations. All ingredients for first drafts and blank pages.
Obviously, the smell is not always sweet. It’s not always accompanied by beautiful lavender petals and blooms. I have plenty of memories ignited by the whiff of a dirty diaper, burning rubber or scorched hair (think: charred pieces of teenage-girl bangs stuck to metal on curling iron.) These not-so-pleasant aromatic traces are just as bold and memorable, just as ripe and ready to be reimagined on a page.
Now it’s your turn.
Take an hour (or a day!) and expose yourself, on purpose, to smells that ignite memory. Maybe it means going to your local arts and crafts store and cracking opening a tub of Play Doh. Maybe it’s adding cloves to your coffee or deliberately walking closer to the old men smoking cigars on the porch stoop across the street. Or maybe it’s making a beeline to Macy’s for the sole purpose of visiting the counter of tester bottles so you can smell the scent worn by the one who broke your heart. Or, better yet, the one who put it back together.
In the Brevity Craft Essay, “The Art of Literary Olfaction, or Do You Smell That?”, Jill McCabe Johnson addresses the power and provocation of olfaction in literary pursuits:
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.
So, take time to stop and smell whatever it is that calls out to you, whether it makes you smile or wince. Linger there and remember. Then find a blank page and write.
Chances are your nose will know, too.