Today I was walking down the hall to the staff bathroom, and I caught a scent on the air that transported me back in time to the early 1970s and the old brick elementary school I attended in northern Maine. At once I could clearly see the polished tile floors in that ever-popular industrial grey-green with colored flecks to make it look like aggregate concrete or marble; the chipped and scarred blondwood handrails on the stairs; the scuffed white walls of the hallways above beige subway tiles that provided a backdrop for the artwork of grades K-6; the clunky wall-hung sinks over which were mounted the source of the scent: the powdered soap dispensers.
And then I ran into the free-standing sign pointing the way to the Cashiers Office, and was hurtled back to 2011 Spokane.
For the rest of the day, I marveled at the power of scent to evoke not only emotions but memories. That is the most I’ve remembered in years about my grade school on the now-defunct Loring AFB. All it took was the scent of that powdered soap to prove to me that time travel is indeed possible, if only in one’s memory.
My sense of smell is not the only thing that triggers these reactions. There’s a certain slant of light, late in the afternoon of a hot summer day, that makes my heart ache fiercely. Two memories frequently push their way to the surface when I see this particular light: playing tetherball with my friends at the school, sweaty from the heat and panting with effort; and swinging at the park near my house, the silken rush of air whispering across my skin, the rumble of lawn mowers scenting the breeze with a fresh, green fragrance that I breathed in deep and have allowed, all my life, to define for me the word “summer.”
The original Star Trek theme catapults me back to that row house on Loring AFB, the air redolent with fried chicken ( my mom made the best fried chicken in the world), mac-and-cheese, and – if I was lucky – fresh spinach or Swiss chard or brussel sprouts. If I was unlucky, canned peas or cooked carrots or lima beans.
The memories are often bittersweet. I was a painfully shy child, uprooted every two to four years as my father was transferred back and forth across the country. The emotions these stimuli trigger sometimes include sorrow, embarrassment, longing, and shame. But they are like reclaiming a piece of my childhood, of the experiences that shaped me, and I don’t mind being reminded of them.
I started thinking, this afternoon, about capturing the senses in my writing. Too often we writers rely mainly on vision and hearing, and I’m no different. I sometimes read through my work and wonder, “What, are they living in a vacuum devoid of any scent?” I neglect taste as well, although both of these senses seem to travel an expressway right to my emotions.
I came home today and read through some random places in my current WIP. I’m happy to report that my could-be-reformed bad guy is haunted by the scent of my female MC, like lilacs left in the sun on a hot day; and the taste of lemons – namely in the form of lemon bars – triggers in him the unfamiliar sensations of regret and shame for what he’s done to her. I’m happy to find that rain – its sharp smell and salty taste, and the icy splash of it against bare skin – reminds my heroine of the night she became certain the love of her life reciprocated her feelings, even as they now teeter on the brink of divorce.
I’m happy that my characters live and breathe in the pages of their stories.
As a writer, you can’t check your emotions at the door. It’s the one job where you can let it all hang out – on paper, at least; where you can pull your readers into the ocean of your senses and drown them in sensation, an experience that reaches beyond the printed words on a page.
And maybe, when they walk down a hallway and smell that distinctive scent of powdered lavatory hand soap, or when the late afternoon light catches their eye and makes their hearts ache with fierce, undefined melancholy, or when they fling their arms wide, face to the sky, catching icy raindrops on skin and tongue, they will remember your story.