I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Stories, essays, travel journals, rants, self-pitying monologues. I’ve lost count of the number of “books” I’ve started and then discarded purely because I’ve forgotten I’d started them in the first place. Sometimes I find pieces of paper crammed in notebooks or files on my computer with stuff I have no recollection of writing. It’s like reading something someone else has written. Maybe E.L. Doctorow knows something I don’t when he says “writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”
Despite not remembering what I’ve written half the time I do tend to keep hold of my notebooks. I still have the very first one I filled with my child’s scrawl. A small blue hardback manuscript book. At the age of nine I meticulously filled out the events of each day during a trip we took with my father. He was in the Merchant Navy and we had accompanied him on an eight week return trip to North America. A voyage across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast of the States to Canada. An incredible experience for a child but surprisingly my journal tells not of the ocean crossing or the new lands we visited, but records in painstaking detail every single meal I ate, as well as my daily stress at getting the little cabin I shared with my sister in order for the weekly “inspection”.
If I read that notebook now I can almost smell the salty air, the metallic stink of the hot sun on the painted decks of the ship, the mix of oil and fuel in the engine room, and the mouth-watering aromas coming from the ship’s kitchen.
Our memory and sense of smell are intrinsically linked. I recently wrote about sensory escapism and it made me ponder the use of smell as a viable tool to enhance writing practice.
I see it as working on two different levels:
The first is using our basic, everyday sense of smell. Writers do this all the time. Going into a bakery for example or sitting in a coffee shop and writing about memories of your grandmother’s kitchen or whatever else comes up. Smelling a canister of coffee and remembering that little cafe in the harbour where you could have a laugh with the waiter who made you the best coffee ever. Walking into toilets that have just been cleaned and coming across the strong smell of disinfectant which transports you back to school and the changing rooms first thing in the morning.
The second idea is using smell in a more purposeful manner. This is something I find really interesting as I think of it as creating a set of “olfactory props”. We use visual imagery all the time when writing. Why not use our sense of smell as well by conjuring up a place, a situation, a feeling or emotion through essential oils? How would that work? Well, if I’m writing about a scene that takes place in a clearing in the middle of a pine forest I might grab a bottle of pine essential oil. What else would grow in that kind of soil? Maybe wild thyme, so I grab a bottle of thyme oil too. Now I’m not suggesting you sit there inhaling the oils but why not have some burning in the background or use them in a room spray? You might just find stepping off the page and into the pine forest that little bit easier.
If I think about it the possibilities are endless. A blend of frankincense, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger to take me to a Moroccan souk. Lavender, helichrysum and cypress and I’m in the south of France. A little mint and (English) lavender and I’m in a Dorset field in the middle of summer. Or maybe there’s a scent that brings out my emotional side – rose, jasmine, patchouli. If I’m writing about emotions or want to put myself in a place emotionally before I write, then these may be the oils to help me get there.
I haven’t mentioned the other far-reaching benefits of using essential oils when writing or doing anything else creative. That’s food for another post. But why not think about giving this technique a try next time you sit down to write?
I’d love to know how you get on or what props you currently use to enhance your writing practice. Leave me a comment and let me know ♥