“Whatever the odor, it is a marvel how it clings to me and how apt my skin is to imbibe it…. If I bring my gloves or my handkerchief near [my mustache], the smell will stay there the whole day. It betrays the place I come from.”

—Montaigne, “Of Smells”

“Follow your nose. It always knows.”

—Toucan Sam

bad-smellI have the nose of a beagle. I smell through walls and stymied air. Through breezes and rain. I find scents before other people do—beneath layers and around corners and falling from the sky. When they fill my nostrils, they sweep into my head, waft through my gray matter, and dust off blurry memories, locating long-lost, star-crossed, odor-mates within the confines of my brain. The smell of dead, wet leaves sends my head spinning back to a seven-year-old me, hiding in a patch of rhododendron in the Blue Ridge Mountains, imagining I’m escaping a heavily guarded Soviet prison. Whiffs of diesel and sweat in the street return me to rickety buses in Latin America, snaking along narrow roads with tired farmers and crying babies and angry chickens and battered boxes. These odors are years and miles removed from the actual lived experiences, yet they still betray my past. They somehow tap into unexpected memories—often unearthing times long-forgotten—until I’m falling backward into packed-away feelings and experiences.

That memory and smell are connected may not be surprising; one only needs to have lived and smelled to know something is going on between the brain and the nose. But when the smell of peppermint suddenly presents me with the flash of my great-grandmother watching professional wrestling, I have to wonder what we writers, especially memoirists, might do with this something?

While neuroscience is a somewhat young and imprecise field, here’s what brain scientists tell us at the moment:¹

-In the long sweep of evolution, scent likely came first. The simplest of bacteria developed the ability to respond to chemicals in the water and air before the other senses came about—even touch.

-Scent is far more sophisticated than our other senses. Sight, for example, makes use of only four kinds of sensors. Scent, however, relies on more than 1,000 types of receptors.

-Despite this complicated olfactory system, we don’t distinguish individual components of smell—we treat smells as “perpetual wholes” and our processing of these smells is inextricably connected to and shaped by the moment we’re in. Scent is “experience-bound.”²

-The olfactory bulb, which processes smell in the brain, sits immediately beside our hippocampus, which processes and creates memory. It seems the scent and the event are entwined immediately in the brain.

In issue 38 of Brevity, Jill McCabe Johnson smartly delineates the many reasons to create and use smell in one’s writing. Her craft essay, “The Art of Literary Olfaction,” discusses how to make our writing stink, in the best way. But what I’m interested in here is how our awareness of the undeniable connection between scent and the past helps us to come upon essays. How might our noses get us to the page?

I spend much of my day surrounded by young writers trying to find something essay-worthy in their lives. They’ve never been raised by wolves or returned from a near-death experience in rehab, so they worry they have nothing to say. Thus, they often succumb to the temptations to write the “big-game essay” or to turn the page into a diary. In hopes of helping them develop the tenacious curiosity that an essayist needs, I’ll sometimes send them into the world with pen and paper and noses at the ready. I’ll ask them to document the smells they encounter—good and bad—and to immediately jot down the memory that emerges alongside each everyday odor.

Soon, the students return with a smattering of memories and unexpected connections. Soon they’re asking questions. Soon they’re essaying.

What I hope this exercise shows them is that writers—certainly nonfiction writers—must be positioned to find the edges of essays and stories at every moment. This must be the writer’s default posture, looking, listening, sniffing. In Richard Hugo’s “The Triggering Town,” he tells the story of Jack Nicklaus chipping in a shot from the bunker. An observer comments—a bit too loudly—that the shot was luck. Nicklaus turns and responds: “Right, but I notice the more I practice, the luckier I get.” I try to remind students—and myself—that we must be ready for the passing whiff of an essay, that we must be practiced at smelling and letting the synapses fire to present us with something we’ve stored away for a reason. If Montaigne’s massive collection teaches us anything, it’s that essays lurk around every corner of the mundane.

But paying attention to one’s nose doesn’t merely offer a writer triggering subjects; this process also helps us re-create and re-imagine memories onto the page. Snuggling up to the odor seems to unzip the past such that it rushes into our bodies, making us feel, if only for a moment, present—an olfactory-fueled time machine. A writer who is sniffing what’s around and is then aware of this shiver of the past holds the threads leading back to those moments—my hiding in the forest, or traveling by chicken-bus, or sitting beside Nanny as she cheers on Hulk Hogan. The nose, when rightly directed, can guide us to rich and nuanced scenes we might not otherwise have access to.

I recently met a writer, Brevity’s own managing editor Sarah Einstein, who has stashed all sorts of smells in Ziploc bags. When she’s writing and gets stumped, she’ll sometimes flip through the baggies and snatch the relevant one—say, “Seashell, Daytona Beach 2007”—then open it up for a quick dose. The hit of scent unlocks hints of details she’d lost—it sends her back. It gets her going.

I have a hard time imagining the firestorm of brain activity to be as orderly as a filing cabinet, so I instead imagine my brain like a desk, my desk: messy with scattered memories for every inch. I am not sure what all is there—I have a sense of some of the images on top but beneath them, who knows. My nose, though, knows.

When the smell of the cologne my father once wore floats from the shoulder of a passing stranger, the whole set of memories reshuffles on my desk. There, atop everything else, is suddenly a snapshot of my father as a basketball coach decades ago, allowing me to squat my four-year-old self on a ball in the corner of the gym amid sprints at the end of practice. This angle was one I hadn’t remembered or relived for years—me balancing there below everything, the court spreading before me, the players big and sweat-doused with hands on their knees, and my dad at the edge of the court, close enough to smell, the whistle and the players’ fates perched in his lips.

I’m not sure why my brain kept this moment, why that passing scent lifted the memory to the top of my desk and sent me momentarily into 1985, but I trust my senses enough to write the scene and ask the questions. I close my eyes, step up to the cluttered desk, and follow my nose wherever it leads.

Jeremy B. Jones is the author of Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland (June 2014). His essays have twice been named Notable in Best American Essays (2009 and 2011) and have appeared in various literary magazines, including Crab Orchard Review, Quarterly West, and Defunct. He teaches writing at Western Carolina University. More of his work can be found at thejeremybjones.com.



¹Much of this current research is nicely synthesized in Tom Stafford’s article, “Why Can Smells Unlock Forgotten Memories?” BBC Future, 13 March 2012. Web.

²Donald Wilson and Richard Stevenson. “The Fundamental Role of Memory in Olfactory Perception.” Trends in Neurosciences 26.5 (2003): 243-7.