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Using Your Senses to Start Writing

No one knows when the practice of burning incense began. It dates back to before the time of the Pharaohs, and exists as an enhancement to spiritual and religious ceremonies in both eastern and western cultures. For many modern users, it’s simply a way to mask undesirable odors or to fill a room with its fragrance. Many others use it while practicing meditation, yoga, or as a light mood enhancer when trying to relax.

The use of incense in spiritual and religious practices is well known. However, how many of you have burned incense as part of your creative practice?

There are people who claim that certain incense fragrances can bring about greater mental clarity and creativity. I will not speak to that, but rather leave that up to the individual to decide. I do, however, have a strange little trick involving incense and writing that I thought I would like to share.

What I do is fairly simple. I have special “writing” incense. I always burn it when I’m writing, and not at any other time. Lighting it is always the last thing I do before I sit down to work on a project. Filling up my coffee mug, going to the toilet, finding that page in my notebook that has that one special idea I had on my way to my day job… all of that comes first. So, I light the incense and begin. I don’t want to waste it, so I have to stay on task while it’s burning. The
slow progression of the stick to ash works as a reminder not to submit to distractions.

Now, here’s the fun part. Since I only burn it when I’m writing, I’ve developed a very strong association. When I smell my writing incense, I write. Even if I’m not in the mood to write, even if I’m blocked, I know it’s time to put hands to keyboard and get it done. There’s nothing metaphysical about it; it’s just a simple sense association. Yet, I’m frequently surprised at how strong it is.

Using our senses to trigger mental states is nothing new. Doctors will tell insomniacs to set an evening routine before they go to bed, in order to tell their minds and bodies that it is time to sleep. Ivan Pavlov did a powerful study where he got dogs to associate food with the sound of a bell, so much so that they salivated. Creating these triggers can be powerful in overcoming procrastination, writer’s block, and simply taking the chore out of writing.

If you choose to try this for yourself, whatever scent you pick is up to you. I don’t endorse any brand or fragrance. If you have any kind of breathing or lung problems, incense can be an irritant and this technique is not for you. A scented candle can easily be substituted. For music lovers, you may also use a piece of music. I recommend something extended and without lyrics, like a complete symphony. You don’t want to play the same song on a loop and drive yourself batty, and lyrics tend to be distracting, at least for me anyway. Remember, incense and candles should never be left unattended, and always use proper holders. Kids should always ask their parents for help.

Seriously, be safe. Only you can prevent house fires and all that stuff. If you use a similar sense-association to trigger the mood to write, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear about it.

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12 thoughts on “Using Your Senses to Start Writing

  1. I don’t know if this falls within your blog’s sphere of appropriate comment or not — meaning I’m likely off-subject with this — but it reminds me of something I read many, many years ago about adding descriptions of odors to your writing. This is usually a real bugger since it’s hard to imagine a smell. (Try imagining the color red. Then try imagining the odor cinnamon. As said, it’s a bugger.) Yet the outer wrapping of the human brain – the thinking part – is derived from tissues originally intended as part of the olfactory system. The theory goes that way back in pre-human history our ancestors were furry little creatures that hunted at night. Deprived of the light their dinosaur rivals used for hunting, our ancestors developed the ability to geospatially map their world from the odors the various objects within it emitted. That part of the brain began to enlarge in response to the evolutionary pressure that continued survival in dim or no-light situations applied. Our ability to imagine is derived directly from our shrew like ancestors’ resultant ability to mentally diagram their surroundings from often quite subtle olfactory clues.

    Although we think of ourselves a visual creatures, a trace of those ancient though much degraded abilities are still there. And if a writer discovers a way to use words to invoke ancient olfactory patterns, it can be a powerful descriptive tool for setting mood and such. At least that’s what I was told.

    One example: One of my ongoing projects is an essay about a former Deer Park resident’s 25 B-17 missions over Germany. One would think that something like 4 miles up and quite a few degrees below zero the air would be mountain fresh. But I’ve read accounts of aircrew being able to smell the flak — to smell the burnt cordite from the exploding shells. This has me wondering about all the other odors associated with wartime flight. While the word cordite might not invoke memories in the readers, the idea that a pure, ultra clean piece of sky could quickly become a deadly cesspool of corrupt smells — now that’s an image worth pursuing.

    As I said, I’m not sure if the above is relevant to this post, but the above was what your words drew to the surface. So I thought I’d just throw it out there.

    • How very interesting! I think the main thing is, if you haven’t seen something before and I have, I can describe it to you with some accuracy by telling you the size, shape, color etc. But, if you haven’t smelled something before, well, I can liken it to something else you may have smelled, but after that it becomes very difficult. I can make you picture something, but not smell it. I didn’t think of that before, but you’re right.

      That’s very interesting and challenging. Tank you!

  2. I love the idea of burning incense (or scented candles) to enhance the writing process. I’m going to try it! Thank you!

    Smells are so evocative and capable of putting us firmly in a time and place. A couple of days ago, my Dad told me (via email) that he had used a floor polish I used a lot when I lived in Spain. I cannot (as noted above) describe the smell of that polish but the memory of it was so strong I could almost taste it. I’m sure burning incense will take me back to my college house – we’ll see!

    • Oh yeah. There are some smells, even if I don’t remember them or consciously associate them with a time or place, will take me back there the second I smell them. Sometimes it’s quite unexpected too!

      I have another writer friend who uses smells relevant to the subject matter: Using tropical scents for tropical settings, woody scents for forest settings, etc. It’s really cool.

      Thanks for the comment. It’s nice to hear from you.

  3. A very interesting idea, I was just looking into the idea of aromatherapy, so this was a timely post! I like the idea of matching a task with a scent until they’re linked, so far I’ve only done that with music but not very often.

    • Ah! Doing that with music is so much fun! Upbeat for energy, mellow for calming. It’s great! Thank you for the feedback. I guess a lot of people don’t think of doing it with scents, so I’m glad to be of use.

  4. Great tips. I have used deliciously tropical scented candles while writing about the Bahamas. I like to listen to instrumentals too…vocals distract me too much.

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