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Using Your Senses to Start Writing

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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