We have five primary senses: sound, sight, touch, taste and smell.
When any – or all – of these senses are stimulated enough, these moments become hardwired into our brains. They are transformed into sense memory.
Sense memory is a tool used by actors, to help them bring layers of reality, or personal truth, into imaginary circumstances.
I think it is a tool for the scribe as well.
I use sense memory in a variety of ways – to get into the head of a character, to find the particular music within a moment, to lock into visual elements, and, ultimately, to feed my muse comfort food.
The smell of spice – allspice, cinnamon, pumpkin – transports me back in time to a cold, rainy fall day in Oklahoma. The sycamores and oaks were in full glorious foliage; the landscape was ablaze with golden and scarlet hues. It was misting outside, and cold. I went on a long walk, then returned and made a pot of lentil soup, and a loaf of rustic bread. I dined with my beloved, in front of the fireplace, and killed off a bottle of Alsatian Gewürztraminer during that blissful night.
The smell of rain transports me to many places. One of them is my father’s sickbed; the day before he died, a huge thunderstorm raced across the region. I opened the window up in his room; he was in a coma, but I wanted him to feel the soft air against his face one last time.
When I hear the sound of crickets, I’m in my childhood home, in the country, late at night. Same with the hoot of an owl… or the morning cry of bob-white! by the little bird that is named after its cry.
Pineapple sherbet? I’m eight years old and having dinner with my family at Sleepy Hollow. Oatmeal and raisin cookies? I’m at my grandparents, having cookies and milk while they watch Lawrence Welk and Hee-Haw. The smell of rich, freshly turned soil – combined with spring onions – propels me back into my Memo’s garden… and that throws me forward into carrying a pail down a dirt road, in search of wild blackberries… which my mother would use to make blackberry cobbler. I can still taste it today. The smell of a cave? Carlsbad Caverns – and my first kiss.
An object flying across a freeway can send me spiraling into a panic, in remembrance of a terrible car wreck I had in 2001. A flatbed was hauling a fork from a fork lift. It was not secured… and it flew off the truck and straight through the windshield of my beloved Beemer as we were both doing 65 down I-44.
What are all of these memories good for, other than a stroll down remembrance lane? They inform. They are unique to those that claim ownership of them. They fire the imagination; they provide the writer with an endless well of tactile experiences to draw from.
The use of sense memory can transform your script – or your story – from pale, pastel shades to rich, deep jewel tones. It takes a script from meh to highly nuanced. It can transform your characters into unique individuals, each with their own history, their own fears and their own dreams.
Or, to paraphrase Christopher Walken, it can give your script more cowbell.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
Best last line of a blog ever. I will keep this thought in my head while doing re-writes on script #3….. “how can I give this scene more cowbell?” Thanks again Princess.
Well, we have SNL to thank for that gem. I just… borrowed it. 😉
Ding dong, I LOVED this piece, Anne! Fabulishious! Memories are indeed the very fibers which make us who and what we are. In case you can’t see it, I’m clapping! 🙂
I love sense memory. I was thinking about the scene in “Living in Oblivion” in which Catherine Keener’s character just can’t nail her monologue. The actress who she is working with brushes Keener’s hair from her face… which triggers a memory in which her dying mother did the same. Her monologue just HAPPENS. Breathless, painful, truthful. And, of course, the DP was too busy vomiting up bad milk to catch it. Ah, indie filmmaking.
the smell of those old rubber dolls’ heads has haunted me from chldhood – like some ancient, subtle and familar perfume
That’s wonderfully evocative!