Aromatic Memory: Use your senses

Aromatic Memory: Use your senses

Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it

Vladimir Nabokov

I remember aromas and fragrances long after I’ve forgotten people and places. Aromatic memories always play a part in the way I write a description. If I had to tell my readers about that guy I used to date when I was at university, I wouldn’t be able to remember all the details about him, except that he smelt of Davidoff Cool Water. Now that I think about it, there must be some memories tugging at me from my twenties, for I’m using again Carolina Herrera’s Classic eau de parfum… the one I wore back then.

This is not a piece about travelling down the memory road, though; nor has this blog turned into a fashion & beauty one. It’s about writing compelling descriptions.

It’s difficult to write descriptions that are both evocative and cliché-free. We all want our characters to be memorable, and our readers to “feel as if they really were” in the places we describe. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on how our characters look, or on the geographical features of our settings.

Movie makers are lucky guys. They have microphones and cameras to help them show everything about a character or a place. Writers only have words, but words let us show our readers more than how the world looks or sounds: we can show them how it smells, feels or tastes.

The aroma of seawater
“Instantánea” by Joaquín Sorolla

How could we describe the woman on the beach? We could write about how fragile and mysterious she looks, hidden under her big hat. We could also write about the golden sand, and the frothy water but what about how the cool, early spring breeze feels on her face? Why not mention the smell of seaweed, the salty taste of her lips? I imagine her wearing a sweet gardenia perfume that clings to her clothes and her hair.

You get the idea. When describing a person or a place, engage all your senses. A description written using a sense other than the obvious one might surprise and delight you and your readers.

Some time ago, I wrote a short story about a boy attending a concert. The orchestra was playing Ravels’s Boléro and all the story was a visual description of the performance. No “sound” was used, only the body movements of the musicians as they played their instruments. Still, when I asked my friends what piece they thought was being played they nearly all guessed it.

Hear the sounds; smell the hay
Van Gogh – The Siesta

Can you describe your first flat only by the way it smelt? Can you write a scene about a woman eating a cherry pie using only the sense of touch, without mentioning the taste? Can you convey the calmness in Van Gogh’s painting by the sounds that surround the sleeping couple? Go. Try and see where it takes you.

Featured image by Kristina Saiyan at


Are writers born or made?

Are writers born or made?

Few questions raise such a hot debate among writers as whether a writer is born or made.

Jack Kerouac wrote an article on this subject in 1962 where he clearly sides with the born ones. Others like Stephen King, believes that writers are made, that becoming a writer is the result of the person’s will.

I am not a determinist, and I find it difficult to believe that individuals are born with some special features that will push them in one direction or another in life. The idea that only those who are born with the “literature genes”, or the “math genes” will stand out in their fields is disheartening and untrue.

Every artist was first an amateur – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Newbie writers ignore many elements of the craft, and so do long time writers. A writer is always trying to learn something new, to improve his writing skills.

Writing, as Mr King, says, is first and foremost a matter or will, then a matter of time, then a matter of work and last a matter of talent.

You say you want to be a writer, right? Then, let me ask you this: “how much do you want to write?” Writers want to write badly. They want to write even when writing becomes a chore, or when their words look and sound all wrong. Writers are willing to get up early in the morning to write an hour before they commute to their stupid day jobs. Writers are willing to lose sleep because they have to jot down an idea they had in a dream. Writers have that kind of will. 

Now, how much time will you invest in your writing? I’m not speaking about finding an hour every day, or writing on weekends, but about the time you’ll have to devote to the craft, learning new skills, honing the ones you already have, patiently editing your manuscript, waiting for a publisher to accept your novel, and dealing with rejections that will happen again and again. Writers don’t resent the time invested in their writing because it might pay off in the end.

writers are made
Ernest Hemingway becoming an even better writer… by writing

 You have the will and you have the time but how hard are you willing to work? Writing is hard and that’s that. I have never met one of those “natural” writers, full of the ideas that seem to flow towards them from nowhere. I don’t know any writer who doesn’t need to review, and edit what has written…many times. No real writer is free from brain racking, procrastination or self-confidence issues. The truth is that, for most writers, not writing is easier than writing. Going to the gym, watching TV or having a couple of beers with your buddies is easier than sitting at your desk, looking at the screen and realizing that you have nothing to say. Real writers, however, pull themselves together, roll their sleeves up, and do the hard work, because the results might be amazing.

Last of all comes talent, that special ability that allows someone to do something well. I won’t deny that some people have a knack for playing music, or for mixing colours, or for putting words together. Michelangelo, Mozart, Doris Lessing or Margot Fonteyn are all considered exceptional artists, but did they settle for the talents they were born with? No way! They learnt, and practiced, and improved their arts and crafts until they became the genius we all admire.

If you ever doubt about your ability to become a writer, don’t worry. As long as you have the will, the time and the energy to work hard, you’ll be a writer. If you’re also talented, you might become a bestselling author.

Featured image:

Primping and bad writing

Primping and bad writing

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple – Jack Kerouac

Primping you writing, adding endless finishing touches will do nothing for a clear, easy to read style. And such a clear style is something all writers should aim for.

Overwriting is like quicksand. You’ll only know that you have stepped into it when you find yourself trapped up to your waist. And then, it’s damn difficult to get out.

Newbie writers, being more insecure than their more seasoned fellow writers, are prone to primping their manuscripts. It’s funny,though, that the less experienced a writer is, the more he tries to reach a superlevel of perfection.

The writers I work with will tell you that my first recommendation is to write their draft in one go: no rereading and no rewriting until the article, the story, or the novel is all out and on paper. However, they can’t help doing exactly the opposite: going back to what they’ve written so far, and add an adjective here or –God forbid– an adverb there. They never subtract a word. For a writer, primping always equals adding.

The more they add, the more complex their sentences become, the less clear their writing is. Soon, they’ll have a bunch of bored readers, lost in a jungle of superfluous words. And a bored reader is one that will never recommend your novel, let alone pay for it.

Then, there’re those writers who’re never happy with what they’ve written. There’s always some flaw, something that is not “quite right”. For them, tweaking they manuscripts is almost a religion. “I want this to be perfect”, they say. “My readers deserve only the best”, they claim. But their readers are either getting nothing at all –because the writer will never deliver the story– or what they get is stale, almost dead, after being tampered with so much. What’s the good of so much perfectionism, then?

Polishing and finishing a sculpture
Henry Moore working on one of his small sculptures

Many of you’d have heard that good writing is rewriting. This is one of the foundations of the craft: you write once, and rewrite several times. What your readers will get is that final, polished version of your article, story or novel, stripped of all that’s unnecesary. I use the adjective “polished” on purpose, since I compare the act of rewriting to the work of an artist, carefully polishing his sculpture, brushing away the little imperfections, the too-sharp angles that prevent the marble from shining.

A good writer, as a good sculptor, should never add anything more to what’s already simple and clear. Grandiose, obscure words won’t do any good to your prose. When writing, forget about primping.

Writers & Copycats

Writers & Copycats

Writers are always worrying about being original. We worry about it so much that we discard perfectly good ideas because we’d once read something similar. We don’t want to be copycats, so we’d rather not write if we can’t  write something new.

Writers are seldom original. It’s nearly impossible for a newbie writer not to be influenced by the authors he reads, loves and respects. Even Stephen King isn’t immune to outer influences. As he says in “On Writing” (a book every newbie writer should read), when he started writing he copied the style of the writers he read and admired almost without realizing it.

Imitation (not plagiarism) makes an excellent writing exercise. Writing in the style of Edgar Allan Poe will teach you something about lengthy descriptions; writing in the style of Ernest Hemingway will teach you about plain, unadorned writing. You can imitate almost every writer in order to improve your writing skills. If you’re looking for good exercises on this topic, try the ones David Morley suggests in his book “The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing“.

Copycatting, imitating and being inspired by other writers is just a necessary step on the writing ladder, one that’ll help you to hone your skills and will eventually lead to your developing your own voice as a writer.

We all write about the same basic, universal emotions: love and passion, death, family relationships, friendship, courage, being adventurous, hidden secrets and dark plots, money and greed… What make Romeo and Juliet different from Wuthering Heights is not the themes (love, social differences, passion, hatred, vengeance…) but the very personal vision of Shakespeare and Emily Bronte, the author’s unique voice. It’s the same with The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings, or Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

art masterpiece inspiration
Las Meninas by Pablo Picasso. Inspired by Velázquez.

Copying an art masterpiece might be forgery, but it’s also a good way to improve painting skills. The same applies to writing. Your own style and personal voice will develop on due time, and as long as you’re respectful and honest, there’s nothing wrong with seeking inspiration in the writers you love.

If you’re still feeling uncomfortable about copycatting, take Jim Jarmush (and Jean-Luc Goddard) advice:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.
[MovieMaker Magazine #53 – Winter, January 22, 2004 ]”

 Featured image by Tom Pokinko (