Memory Smells

by Mel Gilden

The only thing a writer writes about, really, is his own past. Even the stuff he makes up is based upon things he has actually experienced.

Robin Scott Wilson

Robin Scott Wilson

Robin Scott Wilson, a respected writing teacher, suggested that when writing a story we use material in the deep well. By this he means that as we go along, we collect memories, impressions, and feelings. Wilson likened this to throwing bits of stuff — old Kleenex, bits of aluminum and cellophane, rocks, pencil ends — down into a deep well. When we write we throw a bucket down into the well and haul up a bucket-full of whatever is down there. As writers, we sort out the effluvia — in other words we write the story. The best sorters are the best writers.

I understand that one of the strongest memory prodders is odor. We've all had the experience of inhaling a particular smell that makes us think of a place, a time, or a person. I call the smell of night-blooming jasmine "the fragrance of my youth" because when I was a kid a jasmine plant grew right outside my bedroom window.

Old Spice AdBut there is an odor from my youth that is an even stronger memory flogger. Almost every Wednesday evening my father went to a health club. I was there a few times when I got older, but I cannot vouch for how healthy it was. A swimming pool and exercise equipment were available, but as far as I could see most of the guys just went there to sit in the steam room and then take a shower. Also, in those days smoking was allowed.

Please understand that I am aware of the health risks that go with smoking. I have never smoked myself, and I don't suggest anyone give it a try. However, when my father came home from the health club he gave off a fragrance that always seemed to me to be the way a real man should smell: He carried the odors of cigarette smoke, hair tonic, and Old Spice aftershave.

It was a heady mix, I'll tell you, and I don't often encounter it these days. But that manly man smell was obviously something I threw into my deep well, and some day I will write the story where it fits.