Writing Reality: Using Synaesthetic Imagery

10/02/2014 at 05:50 (Method Writing, Poetry, Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


There’s nothing I love more than to watch for the signs in life. Subtext, subtweet, crossed-wires, imagery, symbolism. In particular, the metaphor can create a beautiful path of words, drawing comparison between one image and another, so that the audience might walk to find themselves at a new truth, a fresh abstract landscape, rather than the tired old concrete definition of some reality.

Synaesthesia – “the transfer of information from one sensory modality to another”, or mingling of the senses – is often used to enhance imagery in writing. We find examples of this every day – “a bitter wind,” “a blue sound”, “a black funk.” As sense-imagery can be a vital part of drawing the audience into a scene, allowing them to experience what the narrative POV does (directly or by proxy), it stands to reason that the use of synaesthesia – the mingling of senses, or connecting a sense to something it is not regularly used for – creates an even more memorable effect.

As a synaesthete myself (sound — > colour/shapes [chromesthesia] and mood —> colour) I find a heightened reaction to words layered with this type of literary device, and will often speak aloud certain words to strengthen their colour/texture:

“There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant” – “Correspondences”, Charles Baudelaire

I already “see” the sound of the oboe in shades of green, even without the additional pleasure of sense Taste (with positive connotations in “sweet”) being connected to the instrument’s sound, and to the smell of perfume.

When using synaesthesia to enhance your own writing, consider the connotations involved.
“The wind was a thin blanket pulled over the city” – a metaphor, which can stand in place of telling the audience that the wind is insubstantial / cold, depending on the context in which it is framed. For a more synaesthetic viewpoint, you might show the audience that the wind is cold by using colour:
“A blue wind slid over the city.”

This relies upon the acceptance of the audience that the colour blue holds connotations of cold, to be chilled, though it may also be interpreted as sadness if that is the context in which you’re writing – the mood you are trying to set.
I chose to swap the verb “pulled” for “slid”, since the former belongs with the image of a blanket being tugged over someone/thing, while the latter fits more neatly with the image of water or something slippery – again, associated with the colour blue, the feeling of (being) cold.
Since the wind cannot be seen (except through whatever it touches/moves) but can be felt and heard, it is the synaesthetic transference to sense Sight which helps the metaphor to work, with the afore-mentioned connotations carrying the message over.

When it comes to depicting a character through synaesthetic imagery, one of my favourite examples is by the US author Peter S Beagle, in his novel “The Last Unicorn.” It’s to this book that I owe most of my writing influences. Having first seen the film at age five, and being marked by its dark magic (I mean that in the sense of the wild world, the quiet woodland, the pathos/comedy of heroism), I tracked down the book to some desolate second-hand store, where the pages of the stacked volumes were old and yellow as the light filtered through papered-up windows.
My copy still smells of old leaves; the very best kind.

It’s through this colour that Beagle chose to sum up the jaded life of the character Molly Grue, a woman brought down to the level of a drudge by harsh circumstances. When confronted with the sight of the last unicorn in the world, her reaction is poignant to say the least.

“But Molly pushed him aside and went up to the unicorn, scolding her as though she were a strayed milk cow. “‘Where have you been?”‘
Before the whiteness and the shining horn, Molly shrank to a shrilling beetle, but this time it was the unicorn’s old dark eyes that looked down.
“‘I am here now,'” she said at last.
Molly laughed with her lips flat. “‘And what good is to me that you’re here now? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?”‘ With a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes, and yellowing heart. “‘I wish you had never come, why do you come now?”‘ – pg 63, “The Last Unicorn,” Peter S Beagle.

I have yet to find a passage in any text that can move me more than this one. The image is stark, the pathos (particularly when read in the context of the novel) is raw; here then is the image of a yellowed woman, standing before the shining white immortality of a unicorn so much older than she, but untouched by time or care. As Molly says later in the book, “The sky spins and drags everything along with it … but you stand still. You never see anything just once. I wish you could be a princess for a little while, or a flower, or a duck. Something that can’t wait.”

We can look upon the sky, but it is left up to weather to provide us with contact through the other senses – we hear when the storm charges a sound through the static-tumble of thunder, feel our neck hairs prickle with the electricity of lightning’s rise. But to taste the wind?
“So they journeyed together, following the fleeing darkness into a wind that tasted like nails.” – pg 68, “The Last Unicorn.”

Beagle creates an alternative image of something stronger, more memorable, as of a cat flehming to gauge a strange scent on its territory, via the mouth (taste-smelling the air.) You’ve probably come across this phenomenon yourself from time to time, when a smell tingled on your tongue and palate, or a taste filled up your nose.

Placed in the context of the scene – walking through a sullen, grey land – the negative connotations are ramped up with this sense- image of the wind and air “tasting” metallic, bitter.
Similarly, the smell of the main foe, the Red Bull of King Haggard, is described in a unique and quite unpleasant way:

“Bony birds struggled across the sky, screeling ‘Helpme helpme helpme!’, and small black shapes bobbled at the lightless windows of King Haggard’s castle. A wet, slow smell found the unicorn.
‘Where is the Bull?’ she asked. ‘Where does Haggard keep the Bull?’ – pg 69, “The Last Unicorn.”

The image created is something fetid and dark, slippery as rotting fish. Something best left unknown, hidden in the depths of the world beneath Haggard’s castle, surrounded by the sea.

It’s worth mentioning here that context can influence a lot of what you are trying to say to the audience. Pay attention to the connotations surrounding the sense you wish to draw upon, before forming the image. To describe the moon as having a “soft glow” (Touch —> Sight) creates a pleasant setting, as of a balmy summer night:
“Tis moonlight, summer moonlight,
All soft and still and fair;
The silent time of midnight
Shines sweetly everywhere” – Emily Bronte, “Moonlight, summer moonlight.”

Whereas in the setting of a hunter’s time, that same moonlight may become a finger of bone, or a sliver-blade come to slide through the heart of the midnight woods:

“Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.” – W. B. Yeats, “The Cat and the Moon”

The sense Touch is mingled with Sight, creating a bonelight glow synonymous with hunting, the clarity of a cat’s movements; the chill message of death. I find real pleasure in these lines, and know that feeling well – to wander with the night burning the blood – though it’s difficult to understand its origins. Through synaesthetic imagery, Yeats has created a more primitive time, in which the audience can perhaps see themselves reflected – that wilder side, so often lost in the light of day.

When describing a mood, I tend to fall back on how they appear to me – as colours, usually in cloud-form and with no definite shape. A feral mood – all itchy feet and hot blood, a restless spirit – is a beetle’s back, because this is how it actually appears in my mind, all glossy and purple-black. It’s handy for describing this particular mood when writing metaphorical imagery; but I am reliant on the connotations of mystery surrounding these colours, to get my point across.

Similarly, a “pale mood/mind”, can be used to describe weariness. This is because my mind will actually turn pale, like a negative inversion of the black “fadeout” seen in films. It will get to the point where I find it difficult to think (see) clearly. The extreme of this is a “whiteout” (again, associated with and derived from the cinematic fadeout), wherein shock / fear will stimulate a neurological reaction – my mind literally turns white, blinding and stark.

This form of synaesthesia has been known to occur as a self-preservation technique. Take into consideration how you might describe the mood of a scene, through an overlap of the senses – how might fear be conveyed without describing the feeling of cold sweat, goosebumps? Could another sense be employed, such as seeing blinding-bright sparks (of fear), or having an acrid taste (of fear) in the mouth?

Whether synaesthetic or not, I believe that a writer can engage with their audience on entirely new levels of perception when using the syndrome in conjunction with imagery. Particularly if it is to mnemonic effect; I know of several synaesthetes who use their “type”, of colours associated with dates/days of the week, like a highlighter pen on a calendar.

For me, grapheme/phoneme colours of certain passages in a text, can trigger a reaction that leaves a “bookmark” impression. I can then return to these influential snippets as and when needed. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote are favourites for this, as are Nabokov and Alice Hoffman, all of whom are “colour-associative” authors.

Whatever sensory-crossover you choose when using synaesthetic imagery, keep in mind the associative connotations; how these will impact upon the context of events in a scene, the portrayal of a character, the mood surrounding a narrative POV / dialogue.
Using the adjectives “juicy” and/or “red” to taste/sight-describe a cemetery’s creepy atmosphere, will more than likely evoke the wrong image.

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10 Comments

  1. Norah said,

    Love the imagery – learned a new word. Thanks.

    • raishimi33 said,

      No worries, glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I’m learning more about the “syndrome” all the time; only recently discovered a name for this thing in my head, myself!

      • Norah said,

        Being able to name can help us clarify and understand!

  2. Graham Milne said,

    As ever, brilliant stuff. A searing white jolt of inspiration.

    • raishimi33 said,

      Danke, darlin 🙂 Always plucks my spirits up to hear that

  3. He gave me a blue rose… | Raishimi33 said,

    […] Something vital was missing. I was already a writer by that point, scratching out stories between the pages of whatever text we’d been lumped with in English (as much as I love Wuthering Heights, if I ever have to dissect it again it’ll be too soon.) A fantasy world was forming behind my eyes, in conjunction with the strange mood-colours that I only now recognize as typical of synaesthesia. […]

  4. Synesthesia and Writing With Synesthesia | Jessica P. West said,

    […] For more information from the perspective of a fellow synesthete, read Rachael Spellman’s Writing Reality article: Using Synaesthetic Imagery, and look around her website for more writing advice and a truly unique reading […]

  5. Diane said,

    What an interesting post. And I have a new word in my vocabulary (smile). Thanks for sharing this.

    • raishimi33 said,

      No worries – if you want to know anymore about synaesthesia, do please ask. I only found out what it was last year, but it’s been around in my head forever, for me 🙂

  6. Best of the web| Stranger Views said,

    […] Go to Writing Reality: Using Synaesthetic Imagery […]

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