Is it pungent, reeking of ripe stenches and rotten odours? Or is it fresh and fragrant, evocative, scented and sensual?
Both are good. The bland sterility of written anosmia, on the other hand, eventually leaves me cold. Anosmia in real life terrifies me. I’ve experienced it. (Please read Coming to My Senses - I had to learn how to reframe and re-experience my life.)
Smell is the sense of memory and desire. ~ Jean-Jaques Rousseau.
We all have different ways of processing and representing information, our own preferred sensory perceptions, and we can unconsciously lean towards our own preferences in our writing.
Many writers are comfortable in the realms of the abstract, dealing more in concepts than any sensual representation, but if we want our writing to resonate with as many readers as possible, it’s vital that we incorporate all of the senses – without overdoing it.
The majority of people have a strong preference for processing visually, aurally or less frequently, kinaesthetically - which involves movement, physical sensation or emotions that evoke physical experience.
Many bloggers include only visual imagery in their writing. Maybe this is because so many writing books say Don’t explain..show. The advice is good; leading our readers through an experience, allowing them to recreate it for themselves is more powerful than telling them how to feel and overexplaining our own thoughts and feelings. But ‘show’ is an inherently visual word.
When we write, we also connect with our inner voice, reproduce the rhythms of speech and the world around us, manipulating our readers’ breathing responses and reading pace through the sounds, punctuation and spacing we use. There’s often a crossover with the kinaesthetic experience here.
We’re also encouraged to use action verbs to create a sense of movement. These connect with our visual memory and our body’s memory.
Combine the three and many people assume it means that the best writing is journalistic or evocative of comic strips, sequentially building the frames of a surround-around film.
I personally believe we shouldn’t underestimate our sense of taste and smell, two of the most evocative senses. They can bypass logic and trigger the deepest of associations, longings and memories, bringing any piece of writing to life. For me, fragrance, like music, can connect straight to the soul.
Not the senses I have but what I do with them is my kingdom. ~ Helen Keller
How can you discover what your sensory preferences are?
Look at three of your previous posts or pieces of writing. Print them off. Get a selection of highlighter pens. Look out for evidence of visual, aural, kinaesthetic, gustatory (taste) or olfactory (smell) preferences and descriptions and highlight each in a different colour. For example one person may say “I see what you mean. This piece has clarity.” Someone else may say “I hear what you’re saying but it doesn’t ring true for me.” Some people find a concept obscure where others may think it sounds crazy or something just doesn’t fit.
What is your lead representational system? Does it show up in your writing? Try exploring your ‘weaker’ senses.
If you have a distinctive leading preference, try translating the thought into another representational system. For example, ‘as comforting as the site of my own front door’ could become ‘as comforting as a hot chocolate’ or ‘the sound of a mother’s voice’. It’ll help you empathise with how other people process the world. In western Europe and North America, there is less preference for gustatory and olfactory expression than in other parts of the world. I was much more comfortable talking with wild abandon about food and fragrance experiences in Greece than I am in Scotland.
Sensual accuity makes for good writing; mixing it up makes for vibrant creativity. In my coaching, I also learned through neuro linguistic programming that people can jar and clash if they are completely unaware that other people process information differently. Parents sometimes forget how much childlike wonder and innocent vivacity comes from children’s sensual experience and processing of the world; adults seem to be constantly busy trying to fill their heads with information and logical concepts – disconnecting them gradually from the most basic and beautiful pleasures of life.
How can you use the senses to improve your writing, your coaching, your parenting and your life?
Simple. Experiment with your senses. After you read this, go and have a snack and really savour it. The colours, taste, aroma and sound of it and the way it feels in your hand and in your mouth.
However, while the two aspects of the sense of smell — memory and desire— are past-and-future-tense prompts, the soul of scent is only truly discovered when we delight in its myriad pleasures every day. Scent is at its heady best, like life, in the present moment. ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach
Deliberately explore those senses you underuse. Spend the whole day today being aware of how you process the world. You’ll find yourself suddenly, gratefully in tune with details and a sense of wonder if you deliberately feel, smell, taste, listen to and see the world differently.
Disconnect from your computer and your head for a while. Luxuriate in your senses and try and recreate the experiences in your writing.
If you’re a coach or business person, become very, very aware of how your client processes language. It’s no coincidence that advertising presentations, hypnosis, fairy tales and trance inductions all use a combination of sensual descriptions and representational systems to make you imagine, see, hear, smell, taste and feel. You’ll connect with more people if you cover all your bases.
I’m obsessed with sensual writing and synaesthesia – poetry and lyrics are infused with it. I suspect I’ve just discovered this week’s theme! I won’t ask you what your favourite aromas are; that’ll keep for later…if they’re rising to your mind as you read, jot them down for later!…
But today, I’d like you to think of one smell, scent, aroma, fragrance, only one, that sums up each of the seasons for you. If you had to evoke the memory of a season in a haiku, poem or piece of writing, which one scented detail would capture it best and evoke it for your reader? (Winter for me is mulled wine – apple and cinnamon!)
What does your home smell like right now!?