My mom remembers her milk letting down in the baby aisle of the grocery store when she was still breastfeeding me—that’s how powerfully visceral smell can be. It can alter us physically and emotionally. The talcum powder smell of baby products told her body it was time to release milk. Like writing about any sense, details about smell ground readers on the page or transport them instantly and completely. They can make characters and settings feel visceral and real: grandfathers who smell of toothpaste and tobacco; homes perfumed with pie crust and ocean salt.
As writers, we are like sommeliers or perfumers with our words, choosing the aromas that are going to deliver a specific experience like wine professionals select the perfect bottle to pair with a dish.
Here’s another mini writing exercise to send you off: Choose a single smell from your past—perhaps the hallways of your middle school or your mom’s oatmeal-raisin cookies that you always found sort of sickly sweet. Write about the smell itself, the components of the dirty oven and the browning butter, but also about how those scents make you feel. Try to evoke the emotion through the smell, the way the house full of those cookies’ unmistakable fragrance meant your mom felt exuberant or guilty or exhausted. Write about the way one deep inhale of cookie air could change your brain chemistry, your day. As readers, it can change us too.
Hannah Howard is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and Out of the Kitchen and the forthcoming book Plenty: A Memoir of Food and Family. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. Hannah writes for SELF, New York Magazine, and Salon.com, and lives in New York City.