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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

#Writers and #characters who “smell”

This morning I was about to light an incense stick, a patchouli and sandlewood mix. The wooden matches available in town are a bit difficult to light: never on the first strike. This time was no exception. However, the spark and smoke the match made triggered an image in my mind.

When the magnesium-sulfur odor entered my nostrils, my memory flung me back to my childhood home, outside Chicago, in the yard under a falling sun, dusk: me, holding a cap-gun, blasting away at the tree. In the present I stood holding the match, but my past played the memory before my eyes. I liked to shoot the gun toward night because that’s when the caps, when exploded, would be most visible: red and orange, a puff of smoke.

In my yeasty imagination, I was either a criminal or an FBI agent, depending on my mood. I’d run, crouch, take aim, and fire. Run again, spin around the corner of the brick house, and fire again. I could do this for an hour, or as long as the roll of caps lasted.

Back in reality, I struck the match again, and this time it lit, and so I put the flame to the end of the patchouli stick, and the stick into the dugout. I thought of that cap-gun game again, and wondered how long it had been since I’d last thought of that, or another, cap-gun memory.

The image-trigger (no pun intended) of smell was on top of Aristotle’s list of means to have characters feel an emotional connection. Emotion and arousal were key points in Aristotle’s POETICS to drive home story. No writer today should be without owning their characters’ sense of  smell; also, ask yourself, Why do they smell these things in this way. We’re all pretty much different, even in our sameness.

Stop and smell a rose today. And wait to see which image it triggers.


My newest novel is “Max, the blind guy” — the story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. This new novel will be published on June 5, 2015 from Siren & Muse Publishing. Read an excerpt here that you won’t find at on-line bookshops.

What Beauty was published in 2012. It’s a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.


Seeing in the Mind

I often write & talk about metaphorical ways of seeing. Ostensibly, metaphor includes one’s senses, but I haven’t focus on the senses. It’s high time to change that:

The very senses that let us get through the day help us writers create metaphor: smell, taste, heard sounds, the visual antidote to basic life — these all generate associations that get us to use one thing to describe another.
Do any of us focus on our senses more than normally? Perhaps not often, anyway. Yogis, sure; and when you’re about to eat, or while drinking a good glass of red wine. We take for granted our senses’ at-the-ready use-ness they provide. I certainly do too often. This is not the case for the blind, deaf, and I suppose mute … even those mildly so. I can’t comment on their experiences, only my subtle renditions of those afflictions when I walk around in the dark, or my ears get plugged with wax (a strange affliction that just hangs on from childhood), and perhaps also when I’m set speechless at the sight of something that boggles my mind.

When I go to sleep each night, I place a glass of water on a side table for that middle-night thirst attack. Once set on the night-table, I turn off the lights and there disappears one sense. Or does it fully disappear? Ray Charles spoke of remembering colors, mostly, before he went blind at age four or five. He told also how his boyhood home had a wood chopping block, a washtub in the yard, and pine trees. These are memories, of course, but they are also seeing — seeing in the mind — a way we recall the past, but also how we can invent story as well. In fact, without seeing in the mind, we often could not perform everyday tasks, and certainly not center our character(s) in a place for the reader to see, nor move them through the story with action, gesture, or reaction.

That glass of water on my night stand, in the middle of the night, with darkness around me, I reach out to grasp, but I’m unsure of its distance. I have to feel for the night-stand’s edge, and in that movement, at that moment, I see in my mind the shape of the edge, beveled, approximate distance from my already reaching hand, inches, and where on its surface I placed the glass, a hand’s-length behind the edge. The memory of putting that glass on the table before sleep and turning out the light was enough, I suppose, to link the thought with the action.

This seems almost too obvious to care about, but think of one seeing-in-the-mind act you perform often, even daily. Let’s stay with the idea of a darkened room, a room of your choice, a room you know well. You’re already seeing this room, aren’t you? With the lights off, then, you need to get across the room, maneuver through furniture, find a light switch or doorknob, just to get to the bathroom, or to the refrigerator, or the closet door. So you make your way through the room, knowing somewhat where your couch is in relation to your body, how many steps to the end of the couch, the turn through the space between couch and table, then across a stretch of carpet or floor (onto a rug?), close now to the light switch, feel the wall at the edge, the correct height, and … click … you’ve got lighted vision again. Easy, right? Sure.

Now think about that one time where you needed to walk in the dark, but through a completely unfamiliar room. You step like a baby, your arms stretched out — or one stretched out while the other guards your eyes and head — feeling, groping for a chair or sofa back, something that’s familiar in shape anyway; you knock things over, stub a toe, even walk into a wall. Here lies the difference between seeing in the mind without promptings or memory, and what we experience every day in our own homes.

Most people call this, I guess, “visualization.” What does that really mean, though? Try saying it: “I ‘visualized’ the car.” Huh? No, no! We say, “I see” when someone is explaining an event, telling a story, or working through a thought. “Seeing” is the word; “seeing in the mind” the concept behind the words. This phrase is at our fingertips, and it was used in the methodology within the writing program at Columbia College Chicago, where I earned my MFA and also taught for several years.

Seeing in the mind is, likewise, the way writers write, painters paint, and even how photographers “see” a shot (or set it up in their minds) before finding the moment to release the shutter. Perhaps, even, seeing in the mind is one way musicians put together a tune. Well … can they only hear the notes in their heads? Guitarists, pianists, flutists, violinists, all must place their fingers on the instrument before anything auditory happens.

Perhaps then, seeing in the mind is our way to structure the world. Our first world, of course, is our minds. All those thoughts bring so many sights that we have to somehow organize them, even as one quickly jumps (or melds) into another.

Memory. Seeing. Speech. Aroma. Associative elements. Metaphor. These play integral roles in many of the creative minds’ lives. Philosophers have spoken about one from another.

As a last thought, I’d like to say something to the legacy of that famous philosopher who asked the question, “When I leave a room where a chair sits, is that chair still in the room?”

Here’s my answer: If you leave the room, you no longer see the chair, and therefore cannot prove that the chair exists. Well then, if you turn out the lights, you have just as much ability to question the chair’s existence. So turn out the lights, walk across the room, and when you kick that chair and fracture a toe, your scream will tell you the truth about that chair’s existence.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Reading “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell

This winner of France’s highest literary award, the Goncourt, “The Kindly Ones” has Dr Max Aue revisiting his life, particularly his years in the SS intelligence division during Nazi rampage across Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. Aue is an intellectual, and what he sees his fellow soldiers do in the name of “service to the Reich” sickens him and other officers. But life in the army — any army — is rife with moral contradictions.

And so the book chronicles what Max Aue does and what he thinks about what he (and other soldiers) does. His ability to weigh intelligently the differences between civilian life (and intellectual study) and soldierly duty is fascinating … and troubling. I’m on page 136, and already the atrocities are piling up as high as the body count of civilian victims shot in cold blood in unmarked trenches outside their villages.

“Ever since the beginning of human history, war has always been regarded as the ultimate evil. But we had invented something compared to which war had come to seem clean and pure, something from which many were already trying to escape by taking refuge in the elementary certainties of war and the front.”

I’m waiting for the real story to kick in — I’ve read enough factual history about WWII’s atrocities; I’ve seen the Nazi film footage, too; so fiction needs to offer more — the story of Max Aue and his conscience and where all his learning is buried during these years (so far, he’s making wonderful allusions that make a read cringe).

But at 900+ pages, I can’t see myself going page by page with one massacre after another described in beautiful, chilling detail. There’s got to be something more.

To be continued ….


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.