By day, she is the mild mannered Madame Paradox, aspiring author. But at night, oh at night Ladies and Gentleman, a beast is unleashed. One with powers heretofore unheard of on this planet. For you see, deep in the superhero bunker that I share with the two guitar-playing stoners next door, and the couple with the power tools upstairs, I am known simply as…The Sniffer. Feel free to insert whatever dramatic theme music you feel is fitting here. I’m partial to Underdog myself, but use your imagination.
I speak to you now of my hypersensitive sense of smell, passed down to me by my mother, The Scent Whisperer. Yes, back in the day, mom could root out even the hint of a smelly banana skin days before any laymen might discover it. Incidentally, you may know my mother by her tribal name She-Who-Expects-You-To-Use-A-Coaster, but I digress.
Are your cupcakes just barely on the verge of scorching? The Sniffer knows and will keep the world safe for PTA bake sales everywhere. Got a gas leak? Faster than you can say, “canary in a coal mine” The Sniffer alerts the authorities, or at least the doorman. Yes, be warned, if you’ve forgotten to empty the litter box recently, or you’re smoking some of that hippie lettuce, The Sniffer knows.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I have finally chosen to reveal my top secret identity. I guess I’ve been thinking about what inspires a person to create. For me, certainly a part of it is due to my natural hypersensitivity. I have a bloodhound-like sense of smell, it is true. But as a child there were many other sensitivities as well. A person’s angry tone of voice supposedly hidden could easily leave me in tears. Witnessing another person’s pain would typically cause an empathetic response of pain in my own body. As I think I’ve mentioned before, even my skin was hypersensitive. The elastic on my knee socks, the weather, pretty much anything gave me hives. (I still haven’t gotten over the Crazy Foam incident. I was scratching for days.) Of course there was also my overactive imagination resulting in many a sleepless night. It all added up to one fairly neurotic little girl let me tell you.
That is the downside, the painful, negative mythology of my youth. However, that’s not all there is. There’s a beauty to sensitivity. Take my trouble sleeping, for example. As I would lie there wide awake I began inventing a tale about a village that lived on my tummy. I guess I sort of saw myself as the mayor of Heidiville, if you will. Sometimes I’d grab the edge of the sheet tossing it high in the air and announce “Oh no, there’s an overblow!” My warning to my tenants of a potential storm. The sheet would float gently back down leaving all my people safe and secure for another day. Someone remarked to me recently that this was probably when I first became a writer or at least a storyteller, anyway. Yes, I was just a little child comforting my fears with made up tales. But I’m willing to bet many of us have our early years to thank for the creative impulses and inspiration that comes to us now. After all, Sarine, the main character in my novel does have the ability to smell people’s moods.
Here is an incredible quote by Pearl S. Buck that talks about hypersensitivity in a creative person.
The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him…a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create…so that without the creating of music or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.
So what do you think, is being sensitive standard fare for the creative mind? Have you experienced this yourself? Do you find being sensitive a blessing, or a curse? Don’t leave me hanging out here exposing my naked underbelly alone. The villagers might get upset and need sweets, after all.
I’m sure you’re wondering by the way what The Sniffer’s kryptonite might be. Let’s just say if you wanna watch an attractive women go from charming to blotchy in one fell swoop, just spritz a little Tea Rose perfume in my direction and I’m out for the season. Ah well, just sensitive, I guess.
Your sensitivities of scent are fascinating, Heidi, and ring true for me. I have extreme sensitivities in all my senses. I also think there can be a sensitivity to moods or feelings in others; something most people might off-handedly call ‘intuition’.
I don’t think, however, that there is necessarily a relationship between heightened sensitivities and the propensity to doing creative work. I think those with such sensitivities probably tend to create the kind of stuff I wish to read/view/experience, but there are plenty of ‘un-creative’ books and movies and art works out there.
I also know plenty of authors who don’t have such attenuations and I know many people with sensual sensitivities who have no desire to build word worlds or paint landscapes.
I still believe our ability and desire to conjure up things has to do with a magical lottery combined of three things: our nature, how we’re raised and what we experience in our formative years, and what we wish for…in the deepest parts of our hearts.
Thanks for this wonderful comment, Jason. That “magical lottery” you describe is wonderful. I think intuition will have to be the subject of a whole other post. I’ve got plenty to say about that, my own experiences, those of others, etc.
I’m sure you’re right that a more sensitive person is likely to write from that pov but that not everyone is wired that way. Us writers are nothing if not narcissistic. 😉 And as I’ve said previously we all see the world through our own unique lens.
But don’t you think the act of writing requires some level of sensitivity? Or good writing, anyway. Significant detail in writing, after all, requires focus on the things around you or at least focus on the world in your head. It’s the difference between, “He ate a sandwich.” and “As Jason sunk his teeth into the sandwich she’d left him, the coarse bread scraped the roof of his mouth.”
I’m not sure I’m making any sense this early morning, but I am getting very hungry. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by and offering your thoughts.
Oh, I completely agree, Heidi, that *good* writing requires the author to have some sensitivity which is heightened to that of his peers. But since ‘good’ is so subjective, we see so many bad or simply passable writers with book deals, movie deals and hoards of screaming readers. Sometimes all it takes is a great premise and no typos (and even the latter there is up for debate).
Certainly I would rather read that “Jason sunk his front row of chipped teeth into the soft white bread, all the way up to his gums” but a lot of readers want “Jason took a bite of bread. It tasted good.”
I would say writers, and good ones, are a minority. The ones I wish to read make up, say, 10 – 20 % of what’s being put out and they are almost never bestsellers. I have real trouble finding them.
Love this, Heidi. It is at once humorous and moving – and the analogy is oh-so-clever. I have often wondered what made me a writer…
Some of it had to be innate, as Jason suggests. I tried to “write” before anyone had taught me to hold a crayon (scribbled all over my baby book and to this day, I hold my pencil “funny” – like a child clasping it in her chubby fist).
I read voraciously, obscenely, to the point where teachers were worried because I wanted to do nothing else (recess? math? friends? Who needs them. I have BOOKS!)
When I was ten I wrote in my diary I wanted to be a teacher and a writer. My parents, practical souls (and teachers!) pushed for the former. So for 16 years, I taught kids to write essays on Hamlet. But inside me, the little girl with the crayon and white spaces in her baby book still lived.
My whole life I was broke and “wrote” gifts for people. So maybe my ultimate inspiration was having empty pockets.
Good preparation for the writing life, huh?
I guess you can call me The Penny Pincher. (insert evil laugh here…)
Thanks, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. We have the voracious reading in common, Julie. My elementary school teacher had the audacity when I had finished all the “reading levels” for class well before the year ended, to tell me to go back and re-read them because she didn’t have anything else for me to read. But I would have none of it and headed straight for the library. Also funny enough, I hold my pencil weirdly as well. I think, Mistress Penny Pincher, it is beautiful that you “wrote” gifts for people. You are welcome in my superhero bunker anytime. 😉
Behind absence of sleep I believe is a door to creativity. When I was younger, I had a terrible time falling asleep (still do) and in order to make bedtime bearable for me, I had an ongoing saga of ten kids stranded on a boat that played in my head. Every night I would pick up where I had left off the night before. I don’t remember when the story ended by I know I kept it going for years. Now I stay up writing since nobody forces me to go to bed.
As far as hypersensitivity, did I ever tell you that I’m a super taster? It’s a medical thing.
Now I’m totally intrigued as to your “super tasting” abilities, my friend. Did you eat an irradiated donut as a child and after that everything changed? I love it that you told stories to yourself as a child with insomnia. I guess that is a psychological coping mechanism for nighttime fears. But is sure is handy for a writer as well.
How in the world do you survive NYC???? I’m a normal sniffer and NYC almost kills me. You’re a brave superhero.
Thank you, I”ll tell the folks in the superbunker you’ve expressed concern. 😉 Yes, New York can be malodorous to say the least. But the scent of hot chestnuts and salty pretzels on a cold day…there’s really nothing like it. It doesn’t matter where I am, it always effects me in good ways and bad. Last night, I walked through the the largest Whole Foods I’ve ever seen in my life (Florida) and the aisle of scented candle/incense/lotions/potions nearly asphyxiated me. But the scent of the beach, I’m really looking forward to that.
Hey Sniffer, your buddies Aroma, Olfactoria, and Schnozelle want to know when you’ll be coming back to the weekly meetings of the Circle of Scent. (The smell-oriented superhero consortium) Next week’s topic involves the pros and cons of destroying the canned tuna industry.
What a great post, Heid—uh, I mean…Sniffer! I loved reading about this facet of your gemlike character! And your picture selections were perfect (especially Underdog, but also Muppet Baby Heidi) Teehee!
The notion that particularly sensitive people have an advantage as creative writers makes perfect sense to me. They are being hit with alternate perceptions and streams of thought constantly and for those that can articulate their experiences and channel them into engaging stories the burden of oversensitivity becomes a wonderful fountain of creativity, and a true advantage.
Oh, I know most everyone who comes to your blog loves you, but be careful about exposing your kryptonite type weaknesses: some supervillains have great taste in blogsters, too! ツ
Ah yes the C.O.S, I haven’t paid my dues this month, I”m sure they’re miffed. I applaud the efforts re: tuna industry. lol What a lovely message. I’m so excited to hear people’s thoughts about this topic. Also, I wrote this post faster than any of the one’s before and wasn’t sure it was even complete sentences. So I’m glad to see I got my point across effectively.
I can sooo relate to this post. When people forget which spice it was that they put into an unmarked jar, they come to me. I think hyper-sensitivity does have a lot to do with creativity. Those who deeply experience sensations probably make better writers, artists etc. than those who do not. The more deeply you experience a scent, the better equipped you are to describe it.
I love your description of the village on your tummy. Maybe you should consider writing that for a children’s book or something.
I couldn’t agree more. Hypersensitive souls surely write about the human condition (oh my doesn’t that sound lofty?) in a different way than those that are more numb to things.
Thanks for the thought about the children’s story. I have often wondered if I should do something with that particular tale from my childhood. I’ll keep it in mind.
Thanks for stopping by Chris. Always appreciated.
OMG! I have found my long lost (& much, much younger) sister! Yes – it’s you HD! I was that little boy who still had elephants circling his waistcoat age 11 years. And I was that young adolescent who passed out in the science lab every time the teacher wheeled in the plastic skeleton. And I was that sensitive teenager who, like you, would develop hives if the ice-cream man shook too much raspberry sauce on my cornet. But all those things & much more have stayed inside my soul & are the essence of my creativity. And each time I ‘write’ they surge collectively through my arm & splatter the paper with emotions. Like you, I most certainly am who I was … & I can often feel the agonies & the ecstasies from my childhood fluttering around in my innards as words tumble from me onto the ‘paper’. But I have to agree with you wholeheartedly ~ being a sensitive person opens channels that are closed off in more stoic individuals. We don’t just write our characters into existence we infuse them with bits of our selves: they are born of our bodies & we feel all their joys, their pains & their moments of non-feeling as they wander through each & every story that we create.
Superhero? Yes, of course I was. I was Syncope Boy (son of Angst Woman & Salt-of-the-Earth Man) – capable of swerving each & every potential (& often imagined) anxiety-provoking situation simply by loosing consciousness.
Another magnificent & insightful posting Heidi ~ thank you for sharing your words.
Peter! I missed your lovely comments. So Syncope (had to look that one up) Boy, you lost consciousness, eh? How fantastically dramatic. I also for years had what was described as “eyes bigger than my stomach”. Meaning I my sweet tooth would lead me to dessert, I’d eat it and ten seconds later throw it up. (Just delightful, sensitive little stomach you see.) I’m so enjoying hearing everyone’s stories about their various sensitivities. It’s fascinating how much our backgrounds effect our writing, isn’t it?
PS: Come now, I’m not THAT young 😉
Okay, you’re making me think too much today. I have to admit, I have no sense of smell. I don’t know if its because I had a bunch of nosebleeds as a child (solution? vasaline up the nose) , or was busted in the nose one too many times. BUT I always knew when I was pregna nt because I suddenly had a very strong sense of smell.
As for writing and sensitivity, I assure you anyone who knows me will say I am most insensitive. I can’t imagine why. Although, if I think about it, I do remember aunts saying I was sensitive, but I think that was more along the lines of being shy.
I think I was very sensitive to people in general – how they spoke, how they acted/reacted. I always saw people as characters and understood that people acted a certain way based on what was in character for them. It seems I payed a lot of attention to this and dynamics between people.
Seemed like much of my childhood was spent watching and studying events unfolding -that outsiders perspective. In this respect, I was a writer, collecting material before I even knew that I needed it.
See, I think that sensitivity (and I don’t believe for a second you don’t have any btw) as well as the ability to stand back and observe, both serve the brain of a future writer. I’m sure it offends those around the writer of course, but it’s a necessary evil methinks.
No sense of smell, eh? Does that mean you have some sort of over developed superhero alternative? An ability to be sarcastic in a single bound, perhaps?
Thanks for stopping by Idabel
I think you and Pearl are definitely on to something here. It only makes sense, in my humblest of opinions: Writers depend on their characters, and those characters depend on how they express their emotions, be it via their fictional conversations, actions, gestures, etc. If you, The Author, aren’t easily offended by, say, how the barista in the local coffeeshop replied too sharply when you asked for an extra cup this morning, how are you _ever_ supposed to convince your readers that, say, Mr. Smith, who has worked the register at the last family-owned fruit market in Bokato, Kansas, for 40 years, knew by just looking at the way young Mrs. Jones’ counted out her money one afternoon that she had had an argument with her (commonly churlish) husband that morning?
You need to have fine-tuned emotions to make them up. I think.
THIS HERE BLOG EXHAUSTS MY MENTAL FACULTIES.
Exhausts you? Stuff n nonsense woman, you’ve got what I’m talking about in spades. All your observations on twitter & on your own wonderful blog are just the kind of keen moments in life that those not of the writerly persuasion might miss.
Now in my version of the Mr. Smith Mrs Jones encounter in all likelihood, Mrs Jones’ husband would have awoken with a tail that appeared over night after he had a strange dream about peppers and sausage. (Maybe that’s just me 🙂
Thanks for stopping by Auntie Kate.
I have a ridiculous sense of smell as well. It’s weird.
And as for being hypersensitive emotionally, yeah I’m there. And it IS important. Because without the ability to over-analyze and over-think absolutely everything, we wouldn’t be able to dive in and write as well. We have to notice things nobody else notices. It’s just how it works.
The key is to over-analyze and not go insane. When you figure that one out, let me know. 🙂