Unless we suffer from anosmia or some other sensory ailment, we really can’t escape the smells in our lives. And what creative writer would ever want to? Smells are a part of our tool kit. They become writing prompts for us, if we are mindful to notice and utilize them.
Before going further with this idea, however, I want to mention something about my word choice. I once heard that it is more proper to choose nouns like “odor,” “aroma,” or “fragrance” than it is to use “smell”—which appears more often as a verb. I disagree. Words like the first three assign a priori meaning to those windborne wisps of whatever that arouse our brains, inviting us through sense to remember, delight in, recoil from, imagine. I can’t speak for everyone, but I would never use “odor” when referring to a crusty loaf of bread delivered from the oven; nor would I write about the “aroma” of a chicken coop.
On the other hand, the noun “smell” reads to me as a comparatively neutral term—open-ended and free of premature connotation. Like “beauty” to the beholder, “smell,” it seems, is in the nose of the smeller.
But enough on that.
Yesterday evening around sundown, I took a walk along the sidewalks of my city. I began without any specific intention aside from getting some exercise, but this soon changed. Perhaps it was the growing darkness, or the fact that I chose to walk the lesser-traveled streets, but it became suddenly obvious that my nose had assumed the vanguard of my sensory organs, temporarily surpassing my eyes and ears. It was then too that my stroll took on a more discrete, writerly purpose.
The mental tally of smells and their likely sources grew with every few steps. I sensed newly-applied blacktop on the high school parking lot near my home; and then, from some unseen back yard, the smoke of a wood fire—hopefully blazing in the confines of a fire pit. Once I caught the unlikely smell of a man’s cologne, but nobody was anywhere near me. And a bit further on, while stepping past a small yard in an old neighborhood, I quickened my pace to escape what had to have been a serious concentration of dog droppings.
Stories or kernels of stories exist in all of these smells—both in reality and, now as well, in my imagination. Of course I’ll never know the real ones, but it wasn’t long before I was conjuring my own:
A sixteen year-old boy crosses the school parking lot, worn out but satisfied. He’d come here after supper to run laps and wind sprints on the football field. Summer is almost over, but he feels ready. This season, he’s going to make varsity for sure. The blacktoppers were finishing up the last section of the lot when he’d arrived. He waved, though he didn’t know any of them. Now it is dark, and the men are long gone. Only the smell of asphalt remains. The boy breathes in deep, loving it. Blacktop has an end-of-the-summer kind of smell that he can’t get enough of.
Connie sits close to the fire pit in her parent’s back yard, drawing a semblance of comfort from the warmth it radiates, and a smell of smoke that doesn’t signal danger. She takes a pull from a bottle of Miller Lite, catching on the irony that she wasn’t even legal when she left home four years before. She speaks, or at least nods, when spoken to; but mostly Connie stays within herself. She’s back in town, home from Afghanistan. They told her that it would be like this at first, that it would take a while to relax. But it’s been a month and a half now. She still can’t let down her guard.
Vern wondered whether he might’ve slapped a little too much Old Spice on his cheeks, and the thought made him laugh, though no one else was around to hear it. Cheeks, hell! He hadn’t stopped there. Before leaving his bathroom, Vern had “Spiced” his neck, chest, forearms, and finally, after a moment’s reflection, he’d even tugged at the elastic band of his undershorts and dabbed his whatchamacallit. Granted, that last touch was like betting on a long shot, though he figured it’s better to be safe than sorry. Those younger widows at the senior center parties were known to get frisky after the first couple of dances.
He knows the neighbors can smell it, because he sure can. Piling, piling, piling up—ruining his lawn and stinking up the whole block. Sure, he could clean it; he used to do it every day, without fail. But now it’s all he can do to open his front door, though only at a crack—space enough to let Butch outside to go, but not to see or be seen. He can’t face them anymore, not after what he’s done. Not even the friendly neighbors, the few who might be willing to look past the deed for the moment it takes to mutter a civil hello. So he stays in; and the dog shit on his lawn, like the shame in his heart, compounds daily.
These are just four modest fictional riffs on a number of things I smelled during a solitary summer walk. I don’t know how they will evolve from here, if at all, but they were great fun to work up for this piece. Good practice too. Doubtless, you would’ve generated your own scenarios—and possibly better ones—if you had been in my place.
So, how about it: What things do you smell around you right now? Do they carry stories? Of course they do. Use them as prompts and let the writing begin. You might be on to something good.