children’s author and teller of stories
It’s the time of year when I feel a bit like Leo Lionni’s grasshopper. Fall has well and truly come upon us in Michigan. The soy fields are dry and golden, the Virginia creeper wound round our trees is scarlet and we’ve had our first frost. Yesterday I heard sand hill cranes and assumed I’d see them in the neighbor’s field as I walked by. Nope. Twenty-two of them were forming a flying wedge and heading south.
It’s the time of year to be sure your larders are stocked. I’ve made my jellies and juices. And now, I have to collect as many bright and shiny words as I can and store them up against the day deep winter decides to accost us. To do this, I read and write (especially poetry). Sometimes it’s enough just to find a line I like. I keep those jotted down in my journal.
I keep my eyes and ears open. And, oddly enough, my sense of smell is truly alive at this time of year. Yesterday, in addition to the sand hill cranes and the soy fields I was particularly attuned to that tang–that smell–that is always in Michigan’s air in October. You know the one; overripe grapes small, dark, and pungently grapey smelling, and apples that have fallen on the dirt road to be smashed by cars and eaten by deer producing that sweet, sharp “appley” smell.
Well . . . you can see that I’m having a problem here. Just how does an author describe a smell? How do you get that into a poem or story? In fact, my book MY MOUNTAIN SONG (Clarion) deals, in part, with this issue when the main character wants to get the smell of the green dampness of the mountain holler into her song. I initially wrote that book more than twenty years ago . . . and I still wonder how it’s done. I do my best . . . but it never seems quite enough.
It’s easy to describe things you see, touch, hear, and to some degree taste (salty, bitter, etc.). But smell? And the funny thing is, I’ve read that the sense of smell can trigger our strongest and most emotional responses. And we humans have powerful reactions to pheromones.
Perhaps it’s just that smell is so personal. Does the smell of ripe grapes smell the same to me as to you? Juicy apples? Hot chocolate and cinnamon? Wet dog? And what about that other smell for people of my generation? The one that said, yep, school is back in for the season. It was a combined smell of wet galoshes lined up along the walls, and that red rubbery stuff that the custodians used to sprinkle down before they swept the hallways. (What is that stuff called?). That smell has had such a hold on me for all these years that it is easy to bring a sense of it back to the foreground of my memory–but how, as a writer do I write about it?
In the Torrey Pines park in California there is a path for blind walkers. It stops at spots along the way where the smells are particularly strong. I LOVED it! I loved the sage smells, the salt from the ocean, the pine smells. What a wonderful idea for sighted walkers, as well.
I don’t have any answers here for you. (If you have one for me, please let me know!) But I do have a thought for you: while you are squirreling away all those golden summer words and stories for the deep winter, store away some of those smells that have been important to you. Perhaps, one day, you can find a way to share them with others in your writing.
Happy writing (and smelling)! Shutta
Shutta Crum writes books for children and poetry for adults. She is also a storyteller, a lecturer and a librarian. In addition to her current eleven books she has three forthcoming books. Several of her articles about teaching and writing have appeared in professional journals. In 2005, she was honored by being one of eight authors invited to the White House for the Easter Egg Roll. In 2010 she was invited to tour Department of Defense American military base schools across Japan.