Novel Thoughts blog

The Smell of Writing

January 28, 2014 9:33 am | 5 Comments

Nike is most beautiful at the moment in which she hesitates, right hand as beautiful as a command. She leans against the wind, but her wings tremble.

When I taught writing at a community college in Hamilton, Ontario, I enjoyed asking students to write down which of their five senses they would give up to save the other four. As this odd request often inspired superstitious dread, I promised my students that this loss would not necessarily come to pass.

The majority of students in every single class chose “to give up” their sense of smell.


For she sees a solitary youth walking along the ruts of a war chariot, along a grey path in a grey landscape of rocks and scarce juniper bushes.

I then told them about the power of the sense of smell to invoke memories and create emotional responses. We westerners are too dependent on our sense of sight, I said. We tend to overemphasize sight in our descriptions, and not pay enough attention to sound, touch, taste and smell.

That youth does not have long to live. Just now the scale holding his fate is falling violently to the ground.

So I would next ask my students to write a list of their ten favourite scents. After they had duly done so, I asked what they were and wrote them on the white board. And as I did so, I noticed them all nodding and smiling at the different choices. Many chose such holiday cooking smells as roasting turkey and baking pumpkin pie.

Nike has an enormous desire to go and kiss him on the forehead.

One woman transformed how I felt about the coming war by mention the scent of her grandfather’s rose garden in Iraq. It hadn’t occurred to me before that Iraq had rose gardens, and I had deeply loved the solitary rose vine of my childhood home. Another woman blushed deeply just after she said, “A clean shirt on a handsome man.”

But she is afraid that he who has not known the sweetness of caresses will, having learned about it, run away like the others during this battle.

So Nike hesitates, and in the end decides to stay in the position taught her by sculptors, very much ashamed of this moment of emotion.

But I did not myself realize the vastness of the power of smell to invoke memories until the September night I was welcomed into a very old house in Scotland. As I stepped over the threshold, I breathed in its damp, old-British-house smell and was transported thirty-five years into the past where as a very small child I lived near Cambridge University.

I have always associated that time with blissful, prelapsarian happiness, for although I was afraid of the dark and danger, I did not know about death. But whereas I connected that feeling of peace with the visual memory of the gardens, in reality it came running back with the smell of the old Scottish house.

She understands perfectly well that tomorrow at dawn that boy must be found with an open breast, closed eyes and the bitter coin of his motherland under his numb tongue.

When I awoke in the guest room the next day, greeted by a warmer, woolly version of the old British house smell, I felt perfectly happy–even after cracking my head on the low ceiling. I was so happy, in fact, that subsequently I never left the house for long. I married my then-host, its sole occupant, and I am writing in it now.

The verses are my translation of “Nike która się waha”, a poem by Zbigniew Herbert. Can you find evidence of all five senses?


Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.



  1. January 28, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    I don’t have a strong sense of smell, but I go hunting for lilacs every spring. I hadn’t thought of it as prelapsarian happiness, but in the childhood home where I most remember feeling that, the lawn was edged by lilac trees.

    That Nike poem is the sort of thing to haunt a soul for a week. I love how sensory it is–to me it’s full of touch: the tremble of hesitant wings against a wind, the feel of rocks and rutted ground underfoot (and I know the feel of juniper bushes as well as the scent, having helped my husband cut loads of them out of our yard), the kiss that’s almost felt stronger in the desiring than it would have been in the act.

    The bitter-coin taste is powerful enough to connect to touch and smell. That and the juniper bushes are the only places I notice scent; there’s sight everywhere, and I hear footsteps and wind.

  2. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    January 29, 2014 at 2:12 am

    Beautifully expressed, Jenna! This poem haunts me, too, for many reasons. I don’t have any juniper bushes around here, so I imagine they smell like gin… (Um, do they?)

    My subsequent childhood home in Canada had a “mock orange blossom” tree outside the window, so that’s another childhood scent! That and pear jam, as we had a solitary pear tree and early every fall my parents made lots and lots of pear jam. I got tired of it as a child, but smelling and tasting some pear ice-cream in Gdansk last summer brought the old days back to me!

  3. January 29, 2014 at 5:04 am

    At a school where I worked as a Housemother, I remember hearing the sweet people, from Pakistan, a man and his wife who were sweeping and cleaning while I cut up oranges, saying with such longing, how the smell took them back to the blossoms of the trees in their homeland. I always remember also being struck by (and I can’t quote it accurately) Charles in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’, using the phrase the ‘needle-hook’ of a smell taking him back to earlier, happier experiences. So absolutely true!

  4. January 29, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    Great post. Not related to sense of smell, but I also moved back to where I was happiest as a small child.

  5. January 30, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    I’d have to go sniff a bottle of gin to tell you! I don’t care for the stuff unless it’s well camouflaged in tonic water and lime. :)

    Mock orange flowers and pear jam sound wonderful (although, as I’m responsible for the produce of a big apple tree, I can see getting tired of anything dealt with in such quantities). I tried pear jam for the first time this year, and it’s better even than plum jam, which I love in honor of Anne Shirley and Davy Keith.

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