Monday, August 6, 2012

Wordcraft -- Writing from your senses

What will I remember most about the recent ArmadilloCon Writer’s Workshop in Austin? Of course, there was the roomful of writing pros talking about craft. The warm camaraderie between member of my critique group. But most of all, there was the vat of Jell-O. Oh, and the liquid with the revolting taste labeled “#4.”


Because workshop leader (and newly-published novelist) Stina Leicht wasn’t satisfied with the usual writing conference games of the “exquisite corpse” variety. Nothing would satisfy the azure-haired Leicht but putting us to the supreme test writerly talent -- describing the indescribable.

During other presentations, we’d eyed the preparations -- plastic tubs of glop, vials of powders, small paper cups of what looked suspiciously like Kool-Aid. And the blindfolds. Those of us old enough to remember Jim Jones’ Kool-Aid massacre shuddered. (Although the infamous cult leader used, not Kool-Aid, but an off-brand drink mix laced with cyanide to poison his followers. Cheap as well as murderous.)

Leicht’s directions to us, aside from making final phone calls to our loved ones, were to blindfold ourselves, and touch, smell or taste the contents. And then to describe each of them, using two positive descriptive terms and two negative ones.

Have you ever tried to describe salt crystals only from touch? Or cracker crumbs? Or, of course, Jell-O? The smells were relatively innocuous -- several smellers used the adjectives spicy, sharp, and cloying. The tastes were, surprisingly, more difficult. Leicht and her cohorts had mixed a variety of strangely-flavored teas to keep us guessing, although “bitter” and “tannic” had a few adherents.

I might have tried to forget the whole episode except for the record of another unlikely sensory experiment, writer Alyssa Harad’s memoir of her love affair with perfume, Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride.

Ignoring my to-do list of far more pressing readings, I spent every spare moment devouring Harad’s descriptions of the indescribable world of scent, and longing to test my own nose against the smells she mentions -- “coriander and wet cardboard, black rubber and roses, toasted almonds and Play-Doh.”

Reading about perfumes with flower scents “fading in seconds to vanilla and rice steam,” or perfumes “famously rich and dirty -- huge, overblown roses and rotting cherries smoked with incense and mellow, aged manure.”

The resources listed in the appendix are worth the price of the book by themselves, but you can get a whiff of Harad’s writing at or by checking the archives of Now Smell This and Perfume Smellin’ Things.

The book is readily available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Never be at a loss to describe a scent again. Just don’t tell Leicht, whose novel of paranormal intrigue, Of Blood and Honey, came out this spring, or who knows what the next ArmadilloCon writing game may entail.

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