Creating pungent memories

Vanilla1webcThe sense of smell is such a powerful memory enhancer that at one time people in the training business tried to capture its potential.  However, the difficulty with using smell to help people retain what they had learned is that very few smells are considered neutral. Most smells carry an association, either with something pleasant, or unpleasant. And people do not always agree on feelings evoked  by particular smells.

For example many people enjoy the pungent smell of vanilla, especially combined with sweet overtones such as in vanilla cookies. However, long ago when I was in college, I was approached by a shuffling, old man in a grocery store as I pondered which fresh fruit would best supplement the rather insipid, college cafeteria food. There was a familiar pungent smell exuding from him as he kept pestering me.  Then, I realized what it was when the stock boy shooed him away.  “Just ignore him,”  the boy told me. “He’s a vanilla drunk.” Now, imagine having that old man in your family and vanilla would might begin to smell revolting.

On the other hand, manure is not considered an enjoyable substance to smell. But I recall many enjoyable afternoons climbing up the wooden planks placed on the still warm, pile of manure behind my grandfather’s barn. My cousins and I would pretend that we were climbing a mountain; Indeed at the top I could see far into the other farms.  We would utter  threats to push each other into the pile with good nature laughs, but never carried these out. Even today, the whiff of fragrant manure as I drive past a cattle farm brings back images of those congenial times.

People begin to compile feelings connected to specific smells from the day they are born. By the time they reach adulthood they have subconsciously cataloged a huge number of smells according to responses based on the situations in which they encountered the smell. This can make the scent of roses luscious or unnerving , depending on your experience. When you use the powerful descriptor of smell in writing, how do you deal with the wide range of connections your audience may already have for the potent, scent of coffee or hot sweat? You must show how your character reads the smell. What’s in your mind must go down on paper, so the reader can also enjoy the acrid, but earthy, scent of warm manure on a lazy, summer day.

Photo of vanilla orchid by National Park Service (public domain)

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