“Do You Hear What I Smell?”

I was staring at one of the parts of one of the sentences in one of the drafts of one of the books I’m working on. If you write, you’re familiar with the situation; that one part has your arm bent backward and your bone is groaning, and you’re sweating acridly as your work hisses, “Screw youuu.” But you can’t back down, because you gave birth to this, and unless you’re some kind of Oedipal loser you can’t admit that you’re weaker than it.

There are only so many ways to describe a thing, right? And I don’t mean in the equally-frustrating “if I say the word ‘box’ again I will sound like a broken robot, but if I find other ways to describe it I will sound like a literal alien with a thesaurus.” I mean that some descriptive tropes have been around for so long that they don’t even register anymore when we read them.

Let me give an example for clarity: how would you describe the smell of an old book? Musky, earthy, perhaps even woody. But it’s a cloying scent, almost dusty.

And there it is. If you’re a reader, even a casual one, you’re probably familiar with all of the adjectives I just used. Ones like earthy. Cloying.

But I want to be striking. I want to stand out. Surprise!—this is the exact scenario with which I was struggling. I was trying to describe the smell of old books and failing fantastically. There’s something to be said about trying to tango around the trite so desperately, that you plant your foot into a big pile of ‘what drug was the author on,’ and not in the good Shel Silverstein kind of way. In a ‘this is disconcerting and my fear compounds’ kind of way, which is not necessarily what you’re aiming for when you write for young kids, as I do.

Fearing for my hair follicles, I huffed a deep sigh and tried to calm myself, casually voicing my problem to my boyfriend. Without missing a beat, he shrugged and said, “Why don’t you just cross senses?”

Aside from the fact that the flippant response said through a mouthful of PB & banana sandwich made me scowl, I also had no idea what that meant.

“It means like…using a sight to describe a smell, but directly. It can be either a metaphor or a simile. The idea you want to convey will still land. The old book smelled yellow. You instinctively know what I mean by that, right?”

The death-grip on me seemed to relax. I could breathe again.

The notion of crossing senses to renew descriptions resonates with me, and it’s not because I suspect I have the least powerful synesthesia ever. It’s because it adds another layer to what’s possible when you’re stumped creatively in a world full of tropes. To turn a noise into a mental image that evokes the same visceral response is kind of amazing, y’all. When used sparingly, it can resuscitate sentiments and become a point of pride where exhaustion reigned prior.

So, whether you knew about this already or you’re eager to try it out for the first time soon, that’s great! I just wanted to pass this along, from someone who didn’t go to college for creative writing, but whose partner did, in the hopes that someone else might find it useful.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to use this as my practice sheet.

“Her hair was summery,” turns into “Her hair looked like the tang of citrus.”

“His laugh was high-pitched,” turns into “His laugh like a knife on ceramic.”

“The flavors were very strong,” turns into “A freight train of flavor.”

“The cold was biting,” turns into “The cold was a sharp tinnitus.”

“The ending was abrupt,” turns into “A hiccup of an ending.”

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