THE SMELL OF ROTTEN APPLES
Writer’s rituals have always intrigued me. Stephen King starts his day by eating a piece of cheesecake. Charles Dickens combed his hair obsessively while he wrote. Victor Hugo wrote naked, wrapped in a blanket. James Joyce wrote “Finnegan’s Wake” on pieces of cardboard, using crayons. Truman Capote considered himself a “completely horizontal author” because he couldn’t write unless he was lying down.
My favorite writer’s ritual is Friedrich von Schiller’s. He was the pop star of his time, an 18th-century German poet and the author of Ode to Joy, which Beethoven set to music in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Friedrich couldn’t write unless he smelled rotten apples. He hid the fruit in his desk drawer and let it go bad. His wife was appalled by the sweet stench permeating his office, and even his friend Goethe thought it was messed up. But Schiller claimed the aroma heightened his creativity.
I decided to conduct an experiment and see if the smell of rotten apples would be a fruitful or futile contribution to my writing process. Here’s what happened:
Monday, April 2nd:
I buy two Cortland apples and place them in a drawer of my writing desk. I’m excited to try this. It feels like resurrecting a small, odd piece of history.
Wednesday, April 4th:
I open the drawer before I start writing. The apples smell slightly sweeter.
Thursday, April 5th:
Hm. No change. Same color. I smell Graham Crackers, maybe???
Sunday, April 8th:
It’s been a week and they’re still bright red. Still not rotten. I don’t know what they put in apples these days—chemicals to increase their shelf-life, for sure.
Wednesday, April 10th:
I decide these apples are no good, and throw them out. I’m buying new ones.
Thursday, April 11th:
I buy two Macintosh apples. See how this goes.
Friday, April 12th:
A faint woodsy smell from inside the drawer.
Sunday, April 14th:
A slight discoloration. A sweet, cidery tang. Now we’re talking.
Wednesday, April 17th:
This cloying fragrance pulls me east, back to my childhood… long-lost sunsets in late August when school is just over the horizon.
Friday, April 18th:
Nectar-y grainy smell. Down by the ocean, bulrushes, seagulls. Summers on the Cape.
Wednesday, April 19th:
I see brown spots on both apples. Are they shriveling? I might be imagining the shriveling.
Thursday, April 20th:
Okay, if nostalgia has a smell, then this is it—falling leaves, Halloween pumpkins, candy corn, picking apples with my family at the local orchard.
Tuesday, April 23rd:
Tart. Vaguely distracting. Maybe not Schiller-level rot yet. I don’t think this is it—but it’s the smell of playing outdoors. Dusty hot feet. Large hazy moons. Falling asleep with the windows open. Barn owls hooting back and forth. Crickets.
Sunday, April 28th:
I see a pattern of bruised spots over both apples now. Should I be worried about ants?
Monday, April 29th:
Here we go. Funky now, almost like tobacco. Barn-y. Cidery. Reminiscent of hay dust, cow manure, and siloes of fermenting grains. Totally Schiller-esque.
Friday, May 4th:
When I open the drawer, I’m hit with a disturbing puckery smell. Officially offensive. Both apples have silver-dollar-sized mushy brown spots with fissures running through them. Like leftovers you’d find in a serial killer’s fridge. Fuzzy baloney-ish, black banana-y.
Saturday, May 5th:
I don’t want to open the drawer. I really don’t.
Monday, May 7th:
I open the drawer. Rancid pulpy smell. I try to imagine what Schiller found so inspiring about this, because it makes me want to throw up. And it’s spring. I don’t want to throw up. The dogwoods are blooming.
Tuesday, May 8th:
I’m done with this. I’m no longer intrigued. I throw the rotten apples away.
I don’t like input when I write—I need the world to disappear. I wear earplugs to block out sound. I sit in a corner with no windows or sunlight. I don’t listen to music.
The smell of rotten apples was distracting. It only inspired me to clean out my desk drawer with disinfectant wipes.
Centuries later, few remember Friedrich von Schiller for Ode to Joy, but people like me remember him as the rotten-apple guy.
Too bad, because in Ode to Joy, he wrote this:
Joy, joy moves the wheels
In the universal time machine.
Flowers it calls forth from their buds.
Suns from the Firmament,
Spheres it moves far out in Space,
Where our telescopes cannot reach.