Word Prompt: Understand | Story Prompt: from the book “Being A Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell” by Alexandra Horowitz

Write It Out: Instruction Video

“Identifying a smell was the highlight of any visit. Identification, though, was hard: the bane of my experience. I was missing words for smells, and the smells themselves were slippery creatures, eluding my attempts to pin them down with name or memory. Where was my language for smells?

Odors can be smelled, certainly, without the odor having a name. But our species – verbal and language-centered – has a hard time fully perceiving without words. The more words for smells we have, the better we will be able to see them.

But as it happens, most humans are lacking in two ways. First, most languages have very few words for smells. English has a countable number – countable on two hands. (Being generous, one might include alliaceous, barny, farinaceous, fusty, hircine, mephitic… and I’ve got four fingers left.) No “pink,” “loud,” or “rough” equivalents exist, no basic words for fundamental smells – or for lovely or dreadful smells. Most of the time we are describing the source of the odor: oh, that smells like coffee, it smells of cow dung. Or the source might be even more abstract: it might smell like “early summer,” but what the thing that smells that way in the summer is – the honeysuckle, the cut grass, the damp earth prodded by tiny, forceful plant shoots trying to come through – is unknown. Instead, our words are more evaluative – the lovely or disgusting – or abstract – “green,” “fetid.””


The Scent of Freedom – MEC 2021

It was me who’d seen him last.

I’d been circling overhead, scanning the soft ripples left in the wake of the boat for food – either by way of curious fish rising between the waves caused by the boat’s passing, or from the boats’ passengers tossing food and such overboard. We birds can smell these boats on the air for miles as we travel. From the acrid stench of diesel fumes to the curiosity of scents mixed in with it: chemical perfumes, meat searing on open grills, musky sweat, the stale dry air from within; sweet, savory and more.

It was the way he walked while on the deck that initially caught my attention and drew me in to land awkwardly above him on the slippery, dew-soaked railing. His head and shoulders drooped, his eyes cast downward, gazing past his dark shoes to the dark deep of the water behind the boat. I heard the scuff of him against the gleaming oak deck as he walked towards the stern. His hands were shoved deeply into pockets, elbows locked. His silhouette was not unlike animals I’d seen before on boats such as this, behind bars, well beyond whatever fight they may have had in them when they had first boarded. The spark in their eyes extinguished.

I could tell he felt caged, trapped. Desperation was dripping from him like the water from my wings. He must have heard me as I flapped to gain hold on the railing above him, a bit of string tied there offering me more grip, as he turned and looked upwards at me. I was taken aback by his hard, cold stare and was startled by the scent of his fear. I cocked my head to the side, curious mostly, wondering where his spark had gone.

As he turned away from me to gaze back into the deep, I lost interest in him and began pecking at the string at my feet. It still held a scent of human sweat and tobacco, not unpleasant. I considered how it might help to line my nest, and I felt it loosen as my beak pulled and released the ends as they frayed. As the string slipped from its secure hold on the rail, I felt a rush of air as the man reached to catch it. Startled, I jumped and flew upwards.

The man now clenched the string in his raised fist. I backed away, flapping, the effort of my wings reaching his dark hair that rose and fell with my efforts. He stared right through me as his face hardened. Strangely his scent changed then, from the tang of desperation to an icy cold resolve like the quiet deep of the ocean. As I flew towards the sunset and into the sweet clean air above, he remained there, standing at the stern of the boat, his fist still raised with bits of string waving, as if in salute.

I wheeled up and chased the sun, happy for my freedom and connection to this place. When I next looked, the remnants of string were there on the deck, and the man’s dark head was slipping beneath the waves behind the boat.


Have you ever used writing prompts to help write a story? The story I wrote, above, was one I’d written from picture prompts. There were three photos – the first was to represent the character for the story and was a photo of a person from the knee down, the leg in jeans with a rolled cuff, and a black running shoe on the foot. The second was to represent the setting of the story and was a photo of a cruise ship on calm water in evening. The third was to represent the pivotal object of the story and was a photo of a ball of string. I just jumped in, and began to tell the story – what you read above is what came out. Where did my story come from? Some kinda magic, I think. Where do your stories come from? Share your thoughts below!

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