Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Can You Smell It? Taste It? Hear It?

Susan chimes in: I had the wonderful experience of going on a DIY writing retreat weekend with Myra Peak, and she brought these writing exercises with her. I found them challenging, to put it mildly, but a challenge that helped me bring a few more senses into my writing. Try them with your own writing group sometime to get at those tough-to-describe senses.

By Myra L. Peak

“I know the smell, but I can’t place it. PiƱa coladas. Friday nights when my parents had friends over and a barbecue,” he says.

“Write that down,” I say.

Including the five senses are part and parcel of every writing workshop, every writing book, and all writing advice. Including all five senses in a piece, especially smell and taste, can be a chore. To make them easier to include, I developed some exercises that make smell, taste, and sound associations easier. Although sound is not as difficult, there are elements of writing about sounds that can be tricky.

Taste and Smell
Get about 10 (or more) food flavorings. The more expensive tend be truer odors. Have someone else put a few drops of each in a small bowl (each bowl has its own flavor -- no combining) in various places around your house. Your helper should write a number on a piece of paper next to each bowl and record which number was which flavor. When complete, you can see how close you were to the flavor. Add about 1 or 2 tablespoons of hot water to each. Go to each bowl and try to guess each flavor. No tasting. If you can’t figure out the flavor, write what you associate with the flavor. Anise and mint tend to contaminate the other odors so they need to be far away from the others and each other.

What is the oldest memory you associate with a flavor? What is your most recent memory of it? What are the other senses that this brings to mind? Does a flavor remind you of a person or an animal? Does a flavor remind you of a scary event, an event when you were younger, or one you hope to have when you are older? Start writing memory associations for each flavor. Make up your own questions. It’s best to have questions written before you start. Don’t give yourself so many questions that the flavor is gone by the time you get to all of the flavors.

Although the exercise is easiest (for set up and clean up) with food flavorings, you can use many other items with an odor, both pleasant and not as desirable. For some, the item might have to be in a box so you can’t see it because this demands senses other than sight. You can also buy boxes of jelly beans that have pleasant flavors and disgusting flavors (same colors) so you can expand this exercise to include those.

Another twist of this flavor exercise is to use bowls of hot water and cold water with any or all of the flavorings. Again you need to have the hot and cold versions far enough from each other that the hot odor does not mix with the cold one. The cold flavor and hot flavor may not give you the same memories.

I had one person who said, “Hot orange reminds me of my grandmother’s candy. Cold orange reminds me of the oranges we got for Christmas at church and our whole family walking home in the snow.”

In a written piece, one smell or taste may equal ten visual images. That description of a smell can not only help you remember events of the past, it can also remind you of other sensory memories all at once. A smell or taste goes a long way toward moving us into a story or poem. Since smell and taste are tied together physically, you can evoke a character, a place, or a time period much more effectively.

An exercise with sound may again require the assistance of a friend. Have them record sounds (15 to 20) from the Internet into one computer folder. Be sure that they name each file so you can go back to see what each was. Have them play each sound (generally at least twice), and write down what you think the sound is. Again, write some questions that you can answer for each sound. You can use some or all of the above questions for flavors.

Some sounds don’t record easily, and some sounds from the Internet don’t sound at all like what they should. You can make some conclusions, which include the following:
  1. Some sounds have more rhythm than others.
  2. The sound and the spaces between the sounds make the entire “sound” and have sequences like a train whistle.
  3. Some sounds seem natural, and some seem unnatural.
  4. Some are pleasant.
  5. Some indicate danger.
  6. Some we associate with desire or hunger.
  7. Some sounds belong to different places and times. For example, we rarely hear a match     being struck today. Chopping wood is a sound that many people have never heard. We are limited by our own past.

Some stories and events have sequences of sounds that we expect. Think about a crying baby who is hungry. What is the sequence of sounds when the baby needs to be fed and then is fed? If the sounds happen in the wrong order, it won’t make sense to the reader.

Push Yourself
For a challenging spin on these exercises, spend a day or a week (when you are writing) and try to use just smells, taste, and sounds. Although you might be compelled to use visual images, the effort will result in new habits.

These exercises can be done at home, with a writing group, or at a workshop. These sensory demonstrations can open up discussions that you may never have had otherwise. The exchange of ideas and knowledge, whether it’s just the paper and you, or in a group, can create new pathways for your writing.


Myra L. Peak was the recipient of an Independent Artist Grant from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2010, a WAC poetry fellowship in 2007, and the WAC’s 2004 Frank Nelson Doubleday Award. Her poetry has won awards from Wyoming Writers, Range Writers, WyoPoets, and Western Wyoming College. The Owen Wister Review, High Plains Register, Serendipity Poets, and WyoPoets have published her poetry and fiction.  Myra’s writing reflects everyday life with an emphasis on the High Desert and workplaces of oil, gas, and mining. Myra is the current president of WyoPoets

1 comment:

  1. Another great post, Susan, and one that strikes close to home today. I started a poem this morning in which I do use a smell in it. I often try to incorporate other senses into poetry. As Myra says, visual images are the most prevalent, but the others sure can add to a poem's effect.


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