7.16.2014

Back There - A Taste of Our Past


I read Marcel Proust's REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST way before I was old enough to understand and appreciate the importance of things past and way before I was old enough to care to remember things past. I read the book in college and what stayed with me of that book is the concept that the mere taste of a cookie can invoke vivid, living memories of a life, and that the mere taste of a cookie can bring someone's life full circle.

It's taken decades of years of living life for me to be able to realize something I could never have known in college: That it's not the taste, sound, sight, smell, or touch that is in itself so potent, but it's the memories surrounding the sense that are so potent. So real. So necessary. So much a part of who we've been and who we are.

I've found that many writers overlook or forget about the senses when creating their characters. What are the senses of a child living their childhood? What is the smell of a child’s bedroom, a parent's particular shirt, a favorite stuffed animal? What is the sound of the foghorn over the surf, the distant train whistle heard every day at Noon, the traffic outside the window? What does it feel like to touch the climbing tree in the corner of a field, grandma’s nubbly chenille bedspread, a sister’s hair? 

And what is the taste of the fudgesicle Dad buys you from the gas station on the fishing dock in Menemsha, Martha’s Vineyard, when you are five?

Texaco Station, Menemsha, Martha's Vineyard
Menemsha harbor & docks
Last week I experienced a remembrance of things past eating that very fudgesicle. The taste was the very same as when I ate them on the Menemsha dock at five-years-old—delicious, sweet, cold!  But what happened when I bit into that fudgesicle is that my dad came back. Bright black-brown eyes in his handsome suntanned actor’s face; blue-nearly-white worn-soft denim shirt smelling of salted sweat, sun, and Camels; his deep laughter at the joy of sneaking an ice cream before dinner (“Don’t tell Mom!”); the pungent smell-medley of the sour gas station, the sharp fish on the docks, day-worn sun lotion, and the sweet, crisp chocolate ice cream from the deep-freeze. And I was right there. Back there. With my dad and my ice cream. With my dad before there was unhappiness, illness, and anger. Just my dad and my ice cream. Back there.


Emma and her fudgesicle,
photo by Deb Dunn
We all experience times in our lives when we need to be back there. Back in a taste, in a smell, in a sound, in a touch, in a sight. As storytellers and writers, we need to allow ourselves to tap into our own back theres to understand what the back theres are going to be for our characters. By doing so, such a richness of life will be added to our stories, and to ourselves.

26 comments:

  1. Great post! It is not the senses, but the memory of the senses that can scrape the soul.

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    1. Thanks, Lisa! Scraping the soul is about right - and allowing what comes, be it good, bad, or both.

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  2. Beautiful post, Emma. Now I am thinking of my dad ... and wishing I had a Fudgesicle!

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  3. Le temps ne pas perdu. Il attende redecouverte. Merci bien. (Apologies if I mis-channel my long ago French)

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  4. Sweet sense-spurred memories. Loved this post and the photos, especially the wee harbor. I think I use a lot of 'back there's' when writing setting. The smell of olive oil is one that makes me think of summers with my dad.

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    1. Thanks so much! Warm summer-drenched olive oil - lovely!

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  5. Nice post....good to be able to re-visit that which evokes sensory memories of a gentler time

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    1. Thanks so much. Some memories evoked by a sense will certainly be of a gentler time, and that will be a great gift. Some memories will, of course, be quite the opposite. Moving back into the apartment in which I grew up, for example, assaulted me with smells that evoked some very hard, ugly times. All are important to be able to find and put in their rightful place along the journey.

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  6. Love it Emma, I need to put more of this in my stories thank you.

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    1. Do it! Thanks so much for your comment!

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  7. Amazing post Emma. True memories do spur the senses. Some times are gentle and some are certainly ugly and tough. This is a post worth sharing.

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    1. Thanks so much. And please share as far and wide as you wish.

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  8. Lovely and powerful post. I'm transported to another place when the scents or textures come along unexpectedly - like opening the drawer of an old vanity and smelling my grandmother's talcum powder.

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    1. Oh, yes, that very distinctive smell!! Now, just with your comment, I'm thinking about my grandmother, too... :)

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  9. Amen! And beautifully evoked. You had me singing "Those where the days my friend," while riding on my granddad's shoulders after licking on own stolen ice creams on the Fire Island of old. Way back there! It was my favorite song then. People laughed when I sang it. I had no idea why.

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    1. Fantastic! And if ever that child on Granddad's shoulders shows up in a manuscript, let us hear that song and taste that ice cream! Thanks for your comment, Sarah!

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  10. This post brought tears to my eyes! Just yesterday I caught the scent (in my imagination, but I assure you it was vivid) of the lake I grew up on in the evening just as the water stilled. And yes, the scent was different at that time of day than it was in the morning or the heat of the afternoon. Thank you for the reminder to use these details in our writing! They are powerful indeed.

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    1. Oh, thanks so much for your comment, Julie. How wonderful to recognize that a scent can change depending upon the time of day, just as light does, or sound. Wonderful to get these into our manuscripts!

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  11. Sangeeta7/17/2014

    Such a poignant post, Emma. It inspired me to look up the passage from SWANN'S WAY when Swann's memory returns. Here's a small excerpt from Google Books: "...so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-liles on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea." Am suddenly craving a fudgesicle, madeleines & tea!

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    1. How utterly delicious on so many levels! I love a story that engages multiple senses at once. Thanks so much for your comment, Sangeeta!

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  12. I'm with you! I still remember the sound of the Good Humor truck. The joy of having a dime on a sticky New Jersey summer day, My teeth biting through the sweet tart raspberry outside sinking into the creamy vanilla inside.
    Scents and sounds tie to my emotional memories.

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    1. Scents and sounds are powerful senses- and exactly what need to be defined for the characters we're writing. We don't have to reach too far to tap into our own senses and memories of senses to create senses that distinguish our characters. Thanks for your comment!

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  13. Such a lovely post, Emma, and great reminder of the power of sense memory. I returned to Coppertone slathered bodies on the beach in Lavalette, NJ, having just finished creamsicles the ice cream truck delivered, when someone calls out, "last one in is a rotten egg," then racing into briny water, and jumping over waves with screaming cousins. Thanks for the memory. A smile is stretching across my face.

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    1. Delicious! I can smell the Coppertone!

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