Over glasses of prosecco, a striking young Italian woman who works for the Semester Abroad program here in Florence told me she has a degree in linguistics, and reads hungrily in both English and Italian. Then she told me that she also writes.
I leaned forward, automatically on alert. What, I asked, do you write about?
Her brown-black eyes glowed as though she were confiding a treasured secret.
Smells, she said.
I nearly gasped aloud, enthralled.
She couldn’t know I was already among the converted.
Almost no other sense conveyed in writing (to my thinking) can accomplish so much so fast, so powerfully. But until meeting Marta, I’d never heard any writer confess that smell and smell alone was what she was after. (Academic papers may focus on it—but that’s a different world.)
Proust was onto this magic rabbit hole with his madeleine revelation, when the scent of the shell-shaped, cakelike treat dipped into a cup of tea woke his young protagonist’s memory, as if by hypnotic time travel, to the epic, detailed retrieval of the entire life of his childhood.
Smell’s what informs us before consciousness or words: as infants, alongside warmth, fullness, and other sensual comforts; the smell of mother, father, and the extending world, a potent, deep, yet consciously unnoted element of the universe we grow up in. Capturing the olfactory perception, for me as a writer, is one of my most precious tools, driving much of my work.
As a daily exercise, I try to describe to myself—as freshly and accurately as possible—what particular events, objects, or situations smell like. And I never forget excellent literary descriptions of smells. (Ursula Hegi once compared something to the smell of “wet stones.”) I heartily recommend writers seize this much-neglected tool, and work it like mad. Nothing else, to me, places readers so quickly, so deftly and richly, inside the world of a story.
Alas—before I could ask Marta more, the aperitivo part of the evening was over, and the gathered group had to split up. But when I see her next I’ll ask to read what she has written.
Greedily, I want to see what I may have missed.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.