The Power of Scent

Everyone knows what it's like to be powerfully affected by a partner's scent, but physical attraction itself may literally be based on smell.

The Stench in California

To live in the so-called "Golden State," we have to face reality.

Not all smells are lovely. Roses and jasmine, perhaps, or the scent of a baby after a bath. But life is a soup of smells and we’d live in a misshapen world if we ignored babies' dirty diapers and the stairwells in public garages when we write. This other side of smell can catapult us into scenes we relate to, even if we’ve never been there.

When I was writing my book, Writing from the Senses, I wanted to experience a noxious smell and write about it first hand. So I walked to a local compost heap, where I found separate piles of blackberry clippings and warm horse manure. They were covered by blue plastic tarps weighted down on the corners by old tires.

I anticipated the putrid odor when I lifted a corner of a tarp. But there was no awful smell! I asked a gardener friend and learned that compost doesn’t necessarily smell bad. As the wind shifted, however, I caught a sour scent. It turns out, the gardener said, that when compost gets wet (as it had after a recent rainstorm), it can raise a horrendous stench.

But this experience paled when compared to the descriptions of eighteenth-century Paris in Patrick Suskind’s novel, Perfume. He describes the stink of manure and urine in the streets, the smell of rotten cabbage and mutton fat, the stench of rotting teeth and onion breath.

I live in twenty-first-century California. I shower and brush my teeth. The streets are clean. I recycle and buy organic. No matter. Nature is more than frankincense and myrrh. It is armpits and burning hair, dirty diapers and bedpans, and spinach abandoned in the vegetable hydrator, turning into soppy green goop.

Writing exercise

Write about an unpleasant odor.

Copyright © 2014 by Laura Deutsch