Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Wake Up and Smell the Essay (Or, let the darned thing rest and see what happens...)

I have no scientific proof, but I'm fairly confident that every childhood home had a particular smell, a combination of odors both pleasant and not so nice. Vanilla Yankee Candle maybe. Fireplace. Cigars. Perhaps garlic simmering in olive oil. Clay. Or lemon furniture polish. A ripe litter box. That smell we don't know is there until we live elsewhere and home becomes a place we visit—and notice.

I do know that science does confirm smell is the sense most likely to elicit memories.

But I can't say I ever wanted about the olfactory signature of my childhood home. Yet, that's what I did in "Smoke and Silk, Top Note and Finish," which found a nice home in the Fall 2016 issue of The Tishman Review.

The essay examines the role and meaning of the smell that clung to my late mother's material possessions, especially the fine fabrics my mother hoarded, and what that smell suggested to me about my mother and her marriage. All that is wrapped inside a narrative about some time my sister and I spent in her Las Vegas house a month after she died.

That week with my sister was all I thought I was going to write about when I first started the essay. But I've learned our writing has a mind of its own. Work on something long enough—or, better yet, DON’T work on it for a while—and sooner or later, the real story emerges.

Fortunately, I let each of the half-dozen messy successive early drafts of "Smoke and Silk" sit untouched for many months at a time over four years. Each time I returned to it, I saw something "new" that I had overlooked before. Each time, I got closer to what I think it was trying to be about. I listened to the drafts. Perhaps, had I worked on it more, or let it rest some more, or both, I'd have discovered even more. But at some point it felt finished. (As finished as any piece of writing ever is; which is to say, it felt ready to submit, if not precisely, ever done.) 

The longer I write, the more I understand the power of doing nothing (on the page) in between drafts; the more I trust that, while seeming to do nothing, I am doing something.

You can order a print copy of The Tishman Review (Fall 2016) here; get a Kindle version here; download the pdf version here. (My piece begins on page 85.)

1 comment:

Lisa Allen Lambert said...

That is so cool, Lisa. I know too many writers who overlook the opportunity for material to 'ferment' in the background. Of course, it's important to periodically bring a piece out of its resting place and give it a fresh look. Congratulations on the publication of your essay - it sounds fascinating!