What Does Your Memory Smell?

I’m slowly putting my memoir in chronological order (from age eleven) and deciding which scenes to leave out and which to put back in (that I had already taken out). The story has to be told differently in the order it happened in, as opposed to a present day telling that dips back and forth. Stories connected in a more thematic way before, but now the reader has to be able to follow threads where they may stray farther afield for a while.

There was a scene I’d first written several years ago where my mother tried to persuade me to go to medical school. It has connections to two major threads, so I was thinking of putting it back in. I couldn’t find it anywhere and now wonder how much of my story I’ve inadvertently deleted or lost. But I did find some old writing exercises that were kind of fun.

Here is one from a class with Faith Adiele:

In trying to work on the muscle memory assignment I became very frustrated by all the memories which are not available to me.  I wanted to smell the dirt in Kalamazoo.  When we dug on the playground at McKinley school, which was next door to the celery fields, we pulled out spoonfuls of rich black muck.  Muck holds a lot of water in it, maybe because of the clay base to the soil.

When we planted petunias in the dirt behind the filling station, Grandpa told me that the muck was like Dutch soil and that we knew how to work with it, that it was in our blood.  When we moved to Portage, which is a suburb of Kalamazoo, the soil was brown.  Mom said it was sandy soil from all the lakes in Portage, but I’m not sure it wasn’t just plain brown dirt and that she thought it was sandy in comparison with what she grew up with on Burdick Street.  As a kid, I spent a lot of time digging in the dirt, building forts and hiding treasures.  I’d like to put my hands into these soils now, squishing the muck between my fingers and spilling the Portage soil from my cupped hand.  I’d like to smell them and see what I can remember.

Instead, I’ve got the Arizona dirt now.  On dry days, it’s tough, light-colored and packed too tightly.  When it rains just a bit, like it did today, and I step outside, it smells like wet sand in the air.   Looking down I see that the dirt has packed even tighter, its matte finish more dense.  It takes me farther from home and my memories.

So I wasn’t able to do my muscle memory exercise, but if I could find a Be-Mo potato chip, I might be able to do it.  Or maybe those little wax pop bottles.

Reading this is like reading my own writing in some ways, but in others, it is like reading something by someone else. After all, I have changed in recent years–and so has my writing and my thoughts about my past. I wasn’t sure what a muscle memory assignment was meant to do, so I had to search for Faith’s assignment. I found it here:

Muscle Memory: Begin to collect sensory souvenirs that you can incorporate into your standard investigations. Avoid the visual, as we tend to over-rely on sight; instead, eat a childhood candy, listen to what was popular on the radio the month your brother left home, lay your cheek against the hammock you brought back from Guatemala. The sense of smell is particularly evocative; spend several minutes with your eyes closed experiencing a jar of your grandmother’s favorite spice or a bottle of your father’s cologne. Now freewrite whatever memories come to mind.

So the idea was to use sense memories as triggers for writing.  I desperately wanted to remember what Kalamazoo muck smells like and was unable to do so. If I recall, I asked someone–probably my father–to mail me some soil.

It’s funny that I was asking for a Be-Mo potato chip or those wax pop bottles of my childhood. I can remember very well what the chips smelled and tasted like and how it felt when the tiny amount of “pop” slid into my mouth from the wax bottle, then the taste and texture of chewing up the wax.

Using your muscle memory, what can you remember?


This is Maverick. I posted earlier about his brother Moe. They need to be adopted together.

Just as I finished this post, I was notified that the shelter is having a lowered fee week for cats and dogs that have been at the shelter longer than 6 months. That includes Moe and Maverick!


Filed under #AmWriting, Arizona, Flora, Garden, and Landscape, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing prompt

29 responses to “What Does Your Memory Smell?

  1. Those wax candies (ours came in the shape of pipes – as if we should smoke when we were eight or nine) were SO bad for us. Eating wax!!!?? That would never be approved by the FDA now. But the memories of smells – when I smell cilantro or lime or a Corona beer, it takes me back to days of camping in Baja and making tacos on the beach. Our smell memories are very powerful, if we can only access them.

    • That reminds me of Orion’s Gift! You put a lot of memory into that book!
      Re the wax and PIPES hahaha. Things have sure changed. I had a Yogi Bear bubble pipe and my great-grandfather put his pipe smoke inside it to turn me off smoking (in case I would ever be interested). Kind of ruined my plastic pipe haha.

  2. I’m struggling with chronological order in my first draft. One problem is that some things went on over a year or more. Weaving in others that were happened during the same period, but in much shorter time, seems awkward. I try to get the timing right for my own understanding, but my ‘way-back machine’ needs work. It’s like, ‘more on this later, but first this….’

    • I have spent several years sorting through all my “threads.” It’s actually only because I’ve done that that I already have the scenes that work for this chronological business–without getting bogged down in too many tangents, etc. Some people I’m sure can do it without isolating, but I could never have done it. Now it’s more a matter of what I need to add back in than in having too much, if that makes sense. Good luck to you!

  3. Hope the pets get homes. Those brothers are cuties!

    • They are so adorable! They were born feral, but they have done pretty well in the roaming room, now allowing people to pet them, etc. In a good home and staying together they ought to do very very well.

  4. Good luck with your memoir, Luanne. I think it’s going to be amazing!

    Maverick and Moe are so cute! I hope they find a home soon. Really, who wouldn’t want them?

  5. I remember the first time in my adult life when I smelled real passion fruit from the vine – it immediately transported me back to my aunt and uncle’s farm where I spent my childhood holidays. The feeling was so real it was eerie! 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on ANN JOHNSON-MURPHREE and commented:
    Outstanding work, enjoyable site you will not be disappointed. eajm

  7. Smells are so important to memory. When I lived in Texas from 2010 – 2014, Pretty’s visits always included roaming around the antique malls in the area, and on one such adventure while I was following her down an aisle, I spied a couple of small deep blue bottles of Evening in Paris cologne. I opened one and was transported to the touch of my grandmother’s finger as she dabbed a drop of that cologne behind my ear when I was a little girl. The smell overwhelmed me and, of course, I bought the two little bottles which today sit atop that same grandmother’s little dresser in our guest room at Casa de Canterbury.Scents, smells, manufactured or otherwise…they are important to our memories. Dirt or perfume, it matters not.

    • What a magical way to go back in time to a happy memory–by a scent. I wonder if we don’t like some smells because they remind us of something negative. for instance, I can’t stand fake strawberry scent. Real strawberries, yum. But not that fake smell. Most of the antique malls are in business because of the nostalgia of Americans!

  8. I hope Moe and Maverick find their forever homes soon. Smell is a very evocative sense, when I once volunteered at reminiscence sessions for older people, that was always a good session. Yet I often feel I have a poor sense of smell so it’s one I often struggle with in terms of using in my writing.

    • I thought I had a great sense of smell until I started writing more. Then I worried that it wasn’t so great. I guess writers need it more and it’s never enough. Thank you re Moe and Maverick. Little sweethearts. They have come so far from their feral roots, but they still need a patient, understanding owner.

  9. I fell in love for the first time when I was attending Governor’s School one summer (yeah, it was supposed to be about our gifted brains 🙂 ), and I would go into the small gym and climb high into the bleachers where I’d watch my love play basketball. The next time I walked into a sweaty gym, I went straight back to that gym the summer of my 10th grade when I learned the heartache of love. I have read that smell is the sense that will most quickly recover a memory, and I believe it. I hadn’t even consciously registered the smell of that gym, but my brain sure had! I continue to pull for the memoir. 🙂

    • You made me wonder if the falling in love or the heartache of love is a stronger memory. That is a tangent, I know! How poignant it is that you were supposed to be exercising your brain and ended up exercising your heart! Or awakening it.

      • It’s a good question. The memory itself was of the girl unaware of the breakup to come, but surely the heartache made the girl’s bliss more poignant? Another tangent, but even to me, who doesn’t write poetry, it sounds like the germ of a poem. 🙂

  10. I think vivid memories create clear pictures to your memoir readers. I agree elusive memories come un-spooled~ without pictures or our senses awakened, Luanne.
    It is too bad no one can send you your requested dirt samples, particularly muck!
    On Elizabeth’s re-blog of your post, I mentioned that having a “sense” of something from the past can create a solid anchor for both the writer and the reader to latch onto. This really works on blog writing, which isn’t always memories. When there is a tasty or scented reference, people do respond more often, Luanne.

    Moe and Maverick are adorable cats, so sweet and soft! I hope they don’t stay too much longer. . . May they be taken home soon by caring family or lonely single person. <3

    • They are sooooooo sweet! At the shelter we will take care of them until they find their loving home! I so agree with what you say about blog writing. And you do it very well!

  11. I’m glad I’m not the only one who chewed on the wax pop bottles as well as swallowed the sweet liquid 😉

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