A Box of Scent

I need a clove cigarette. Djarum Black, filtered, in the sexy, skinny box. And a pack of bidis wrapped in pink paper and string.

I’m trying to go back, see, to a time and a place and I reckon smell is the way to get me there. I’m told the kids are calling it “Nasalstalgia” these days.

It’s time travel.

I walk by a cafe on State Street. A trendy-bendy collage student with a Joan Jett coiffure flings open the steamy glass door. Ting, ting, ting. The scent of ground coffee and steam bubbles up in my face.

Like the misty wave of a B-movie flashback, I’m tossed again into my first day behind a coffee counter, pouring bean upon bean upon bean into bags for a local radio promotion where I landed the real life role as the bumbling, modern day, Lucy Ricardo-esque prima donna. I pour. I weigh. I spill across the floor. Every unexpected slap of coffee smoke takes me right on back.

Scent memory.

I once heard an interview with Lynda Barry who mentioned that she kept a box of things with interesting smells to help kick-up the engine on her inspiration machine. She’d noted that scent memory is some of the strongest memory we have. It’s true, don’t you think?

The smell of gasoline in Dad’s old Chevy.

Orange slices, cinnamon and cloves simmering on the stove.

The cloying scent of rose soaps in Grandma’s powder room.

Autumn leaves burning on a drive in to town.

It catches you up and you are gone.

Scent memory. Time travel.

My collection is small, hardly anything–Old Spice aftershave, Chapstick, Bounce dryer sheets, Mr. Bubble bubble bath. Smells costs money, after all. My intention is tremendous–a memoir, this memoir, written and remembered and set upon the wind.

The first time I used my box of scents was last Thursday when I wrote more deeply and honestly than I had done in ages. Or ever. In some ways the Chapstick/Old Spice combination was something, but I found out, too, that Old Spice on it’s own isn’t the same as Old Spice mixed with sweaty, old Dad. I found out, too, that when you open Pandora’s box, you have to deal with what comes barreling out.

What are your experiences with scent memory? Have you used scent in your writing? How did it work out?

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About E. Victoria Flynn

E. Victoria Flynn is a mother and a writer living in Southern Wisconsin. Published in a variety of venues, Victoria is currently writing the first in a series of three fantasy novels based on Cornish folklore. When not taking part in a shrieking dance party or engrossed in her own little fictions, Victoria is keen on art, the natural world and people unafraid to explore their own brilliance.
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14 Responses to A Box of Scent

  1. Scent memory is indeed strong. I love the idea of a box of scent. But you’re right, peppermint on its own is not the same as my father’s peppermint-scented breath.

    • pennyjars says:

      Thanks for stopping, Linda. I’d be very curious to hear if you use it at all in your writing, if not now, sometime in the future. I’m so intrigued with it’s brazen ability to take us on which ever ride it chooses.

  2. Suzanne says:

    In our first week as student nurses we found a cupboard in the training room that smelled of hospitals. In all my years in hospitals since, I’ve never come across that smell again so where the heck did this ancestral memory come from? Is it some primitive ‘ought to’ memory constructed from a combination of expectation, old ‘Carry On’ films, and a bottle of that alcohol disinfectant that evaporated while you watched? No idea! But that was the one place, the only genuine hospital smelling place in that and every other hospital. I’d forgotten about it until your post and it’s one of those lovely memories of shared discovery so thank you 🙂

    • pennyjars says:

      I just love this Suzanne. I love the thought of only one cupboard in one room in one hospital in all the world containing all and the only genuine hospital smell. There’s a great story hiding in that cupboard.

  3. Oh yes, and the cloves did it for us, reminds us of college! And one day while sitting at a coffee shop we got a whiff of a few youngsters (we call anyone under 30 a youngster, we’ve crossed over to the dark side) smoking and said “ah, smells like 24 years old”
    Love the box of scent idea, brilliant!

    • pennyjars says:

      Oh, I hope you use this in your screenplay somewhere, somehow. I want puppets huffing stale clove cigarette butts scattered across a frat house lawn. I can see it now…

  4. amyjosprague says:

    This is lovely. Reminds me of my kit I haven’t pulled out in a long time–a tiny honeysuckle candle in a tin that rakes me back to my earliest days before my dad died–it’s like a breath of joy, a bottle of lavender lotion that is my grandmas hands, lilac sachet–the night of my first kiss in the rain–I could go on and on!

    • pennyjars says:

      What a wonderful kit. Lilac, that’s a scent I need to add. I’ve been so focused on immediate smells of domesticity that I forgot about the natural ones and the scents of play.

      I do have a candle in my room that my daughters and I both love to sniff. I still can’t get a handle on what it is, but it’s lovely and old.

  5. You’re writing some beautiful stuff – I love it all.

    I have a box, a very small one with an intricate pattern carved into the cover. Inside is a piece of raw amber that stores my strongest scent memory. I bought that box with the amber in Champaign, IL, on my way to Milwaukee and a whole new life. I haven’t used that scent in my writing, but maybe I should. I wonder where it will take me….

    I can’t wait to read your next post.

    • pennyjars says:

      Oh Christi, I hope you do. I can see the box, I already know it, I’ve seen them before–or at least, I think I have. And the raw amber, that’s a strong scent for me too. I’ve been thinking about adding it, but I know where it will take me and I’m fairly certain that’s in a different book. 🙂

  6. kario says:

    I often forget to use scent which is odd considering that every time I write, I stop to light scented candles. Somehow the comforting smells help to cocoon me as I work. Thanks for the reminder, both here and in your last post which was so lovely. I will go back and add this powerful tool to some of my old writings.

    • pennyjars says:

      Kari,
      I can relate. For a while I was lighting incense every day I sat down to write, but I didn’t consider what would happen if I chose specific scents from specific times. It’s much more powerful. This is also the reason I’ve been using video clips. I hope to hear if and how your writing is enhanced.

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