As our editorial team prepares for our first contest (The Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction), we thought it would be valuable to share thoughts about some essays that “stick.” I love all of our essays, or they wouldn’t be here. But I went over every one thinking about which ones were memorable in that early phase of a first read. I’ve asked our editorial team to do the same, and in the ramp up to our contest submission period we will share our reader experiences with some of our favorite essays.
Whenever I lead memoir writing workshops, one of my favorite prompts to give students is a scent prompt. I hand the students numbered mason jars, inside of which contain cotton balls saturated with various materials (things like detergent, cologne or perfume, bathroom cleaner, iodine, Hawaiian Tropics tanning oil). We dim the lights and calm our minds, and then I cue them to open their chosen jar and inhale before free-writing about whatever comes to mind. I keep the identity of the various scents concealed on a key, so that students can have an authentic sensory experience.
Our sense of smell is highly emotive, and therefore closely linked with memory. Indeed, doing the scent prompt is a bit like time travel — I’ve had older students from community writing workshops write about their childhood memories of playing hide-and-seek in the boat yard after smelling the petroleum-tinged scent of mink oil, or writing the secrets of an alcoholic relative after catching a whiff of a cotton ball soaked in rum. Certain smells can take us right back to moments in our past, and can serve as portals to our richest, most emotional material.
I thought of this phenomenon when I read Anne Noonan’s “Stink Tree” — how, in a split second, the scent of a tree could take the narrator from enjoying present-day brunch with friends on the porch all the way back to her childhood neighborhood and all the summertime associations that tree-scent carried with it. She writes, “I loved their smell, even though I couldn’t have described it if asked to…Who would understand, then or now, if I said the tree smelled like sun on skin? Or freedom? Or consolation?” Of course we are all familiar with the representations of certain smells — the summertime scent of freshly cut grass and how it reminds us of pleasant, lazy summer afternoons. But what I love about Anne Noonan’s piece is the specificity of her memory, how she zooms right through all the lovely summertime affiliations with the Tree of Heaven scent and lands on one particular memory filled with emotion:
“The smell of the tree meant that soon the park’s enormous pool would be filled by the huge city hoses. And when the pool first opened for swimmers, the smell of the trees would be barely distinguishable from the smell of chlorine on my skin, or on my wet towel as I lay on the concrete to dry off. The smell helped me keep my crying in check that day in the driveway when my newlywed sister and her husband drove away, moving to another state. I tried to be happy for them. It was the beginning of their Beautiful New Life Together, all their silvery wedding cards said so, but it felt like an end for me. The song When Will I See You Again was playing on their car radio as they hugged us all goodbye. I think I was the only one to notice it.”
Aside from its wonderful sensory details, Noonan’s “Stink Tree” is a true essay — by which I mean the writer makes a close observation about a thing (in this case, a tree) and uses it to explore a larger and more universal theme. “Stink Tree” isn’t just about the narrator’s memory of the Tree of Heaven, and its association with summer in her childhood neighborhood; it is also a journey into the symbolic meaning of this particular tree, its presence in lower-income neighborhoods, how she came to notice socioeconomic differences, and her reflections on class and privilege. Yet despite this author’s ability to “pan out” and reflect upon these broader themes, the author keeps us grounded in her particular details. The writing, of course, is outstanding — making this journey into the nuance of growing up in a poor neighborhood a most delightful trip.
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