Smell Writes the Novel, A Meander 

Everybody has a trick for entering their writing. They light candles, turn on Mozart, twirl three times counterclockwise.  Me, I cook.

This is new. And it isn’t the cooking, really, it’s the smell. Seems I need the simmering of onions to enter the dream of my book.

It’s morning, and I find myself reaching for a buttercup squash and a cutting board, a knife instead of a pen.  Last night I noticed it had some soft spots. When I came downstairs on a tea break, code for “couldn’t get started,” I found myself, as if there were no choice, no decision or action taken, as if a force outside myself had taken over—yes, I found myself cutting the spoiled patches into the compost which was full and needed emptying, and then contemplating the fat seeds and remembering the volunteer squashes that visited in gardens past—and thinking about how my character, Nana, would probably have sorted the seeds and dried them, keeping the okay fragments of squash as she trimmed the bad parts.

I noticed the perfection of the shiitake mushrooms, delighting in their texture and purity as I sliced into their springy selves, almost talking to them in that strange possessive way I sometimes have around vegetables—and still I did not realize what I was up to.  Just “suddenly” inspired to get soup going in the morning? Really?

I continued to coax the onions out of their crisp parchment as if that were writing.  Added each ingredient to the boil as if I’d given birth to them myself.  Pretended I was simply being organized for once, preparing a lunch/dinner/lunch for when hunger might strike.  Once the pot began sputtering and muttering, I calmed it to a simmer and climbed the stairs back to my tower room and my littered desk.  And then—the smell.

Is Smell even a  good enough word? The Aroma, the DREAM of the vegetables drifted and circled and I realized my novel was being cooked and curated by the kitchen. Every time I smelled a rich and distracting brew from below, the words slipped out with ease. Could it be I was writing by smell?

Since that first moment, I have come to really embrace this kitchen technique, to accept that every book has its own way of being in the world, and why not mine in this way? Still, sometimes I worry it’s a trap.  I’ve begun to think the book is all about food.

Of course as writers we’ve been told sensual details matter, ground scene.  When you read that part about the soup making, could you visualize the process?  Could you smell the onion or hear the sound of the skin as I removed it?  How would you take that into your own writing?

What about a scene where some of your characters chat while one of them is making squash soup?  Checking out the fridge? Food shopping?  Smelling scallions fresh from the garden?

Sometimes, when writing gets hard, it’s good to put my hands to an everyday task and get out of my head and into my body’s experience of the world. I often use the Everyday as a bridge to my characters to find out what they are thinking or help them move to what’s next or use it to help ME find what’s next. So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised by how powerfully the smell technique inspires me.

Tell me, what are your tricks?  Do they vary from project to project?  Or do you have one size that fits all?  I bet I’m not the only one wondering.  Do you cook, dance, walk?

Hang upside down?

Not that you even need anything at all to get you going.  Some days the story just calls and you go to it.  But other times, you just need to make soup.


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