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July 3, 2023
By Jami Carpenter
Does writing have a sound? A smell? An author contemplates.
A friend recently handed me a copy of an article in The New Yorker titled, “What Does Writing Smell Like?” (Feb. 3, 2023). I thought, well, what does writing smell like? That thought took me down the rabbit hole. What does writing sound like? What does writing look like? How does writing taste? And how does writing feel? Thus, what I call "the five senses of writing."
Let’s go back to that article. The author, Alyssa Brandt, had stopped in a candle shop and asked the clerk for something that smells like writing, which, as you can imagine, flustered the poor shop attendant who apparently was not a writer. She offered apple, lavender, even pina colada-scented candles, without success. A pumpkin spice latte scent? Getting closer. It does evoke that image of sitting in a café scribbling away. To me, though, writing smells like musk … the closest thing I can think of that imitates the aroma of old books. Or the scent of a pipe … a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even the aroma of a wood-burning fire … where I might be tempted to throw in page after page of worthless words.

But when the writing comes together, when I can finally breathe, maybe writing smells like fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies or fresh-cut grass on a summer day. I bet there are candles that smell like that.

"The sound of a dripping faucet is as annoying as not being able to find the right words. "
How about the sound of writing. Instead of a candle shop I imagine I’m in a record store or at a concert. What music sounds like writing? For me, writing is a rock concert more than a symphony. Metallica, not Mozart. Frenzied, intense, sporadic—not the ethereal sound of a harp or a classic orchestral performance. I hear the voice of Freddie Mercury more than Michael Bublé; it’s edgy and fast-paced, instead of smooth and seductive.

There are other sounds, too. The sound of a dripping faucet is as annoying as not being able to find the right words. The iconic ‘nails on the chalkboard’ that sends shivers down my spine certainly irritates me as much as getting stuck on a character’s description.

But when the story gels? I hear birds chirping, angels singing, cymbals crashing together in a grand crescendo.

Now, if writing had a look, what would that be? When I begin to write, my surroundings might actually look normal: there are no bags under my eyes, my clothes are clean and unwrinkled, the sink is free of dirty dishes. In the throes of writing, it’s more like I’ve been caught in a tornado, hair matted (or pulled out!), disheveled attire, laundry and dishes piled high. Papers, notes, dictionaries, and thesauruses (thesauri!) are strewn everywhere. That’s not necessarily bad; as Albert Einstein once asked, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?"

When the tornado passes—that is, I’ve completed my story—what does writing look like then? A double rainbow? Calm ocean waves gently lapping on the shoreline? Maybe something simpler: my feet up on an ottoman as I sip a glass of wine.

Have you ever thought how writing tastes? Me either. But now that I think about it, let me try to describe it. If the words are flowing, the story is evolving, I think of comforting tastes—macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy. If I can’t find the words, or I don’t like the direction my story is headed, the taste is quite different … burnt toast, sour apples, bitter arugula salad.

And what does success taste like … the success of finishing a manuscript and getting it off to an editor or agent or publisher? How about sweet, like a scoop of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream or a Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccino. A warm, gooey cinnamon roll or a Krispy Kreme donut. A glass of bubbly.

Last but not least, how does writing feel? Writing is hard. It is not for the faint of heart or those with thin skin. It’s not a part-time job. We all know that. But how does it feel? When I’m in the zone, I suppose writing feels smooth, like a cashmere sweater. When I’m struggling, it’s uncomfortable, like that sudden brain freeze from drinking a frozen Slurpy, burning the roof of my mouth after biting into a wedge of cheesy pizza right out of the oven, or wearing shoes that are too tight.

Writing can also feel rejuvenating; after completing a chapter or finding the right words to describe a character reminds me of the sun warming my face when it peeks out from behind a cloudy sky. That feeling of having climbed to the top of a mountain, scoring the winning point in pickleball, or getting Wordle of the day in one guess.

Perhaps the best way to understand how writing feels is to remember how you felt reading a great book. Think back to a book or books that inspired you. Try to recall that feeling—so delicious you don’t want the story to end, but so engrossing you can’t put it down. A story that makes you feel like you’re on an adventure or in another place and time, that lets you forget the world around you, even for just a few minutes. Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was probably the first book to make me feel that way. Years later, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto gave me that same feeling.

Now, does this mean that by lighting a Snickerdoodle candle, listening to Queen sing “We Will Rock You,” eating a Krispy Kreme donut, or buying silk sheets will help us write? Maybe. What I hope you see is that writing is more than just the act of writing. If you can appreciate how your senses impact your writing, perhaps you can take your storytelling to the next level. Finding and feeding the senses that stimulate your own writing can be just the ticket to a successful writing journey.

A portion of this piece was previously featured in a speech delivered by the author at the Las Vegas Writers Conference in April 2023.

Jami Carpenter is a professional editor and coauthor of three nonfiction works about Las Vegas. Her upcoming webinar from ScribophileLipstick on a Pig: Dead Giveaways That a Book Is Self-Published, will be held on August 12.