Writing Reality: Synaesthetic Scenes

02/06/2014 at 06:00 (Method Writing, Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I wholly admit to being a concept reader and writer. Rather than framing my work in concrete terms, pinned to actual events and circumstances, I work best with abstract ideas. Maybe this is due to inhibitions about the quality of my work; certainly, much of my life has been governed by vagueness, with facts and figures substituted for smoke and mirrors, symbolism.

While ill with anorexia nervosa, struggling to recover, I would ask for permission to eat and to rest, and fought bitterly with my therapist when she suggested that I begin to serve myself food, and take steps towards reducing my exercise. As she put it, “No one can monitor you forever. The details are yours.”

The thought of feeling well again, of having energy, was the image I worked towards; but whenever it came to the crunch (as it were), I would buckle under the pressure of taking responsibility for my own actions. My opinions didn’t matter, much less my emotions, because I couldn’t trust them. They had landed me in hot water before, after all.

The same self-doubt appears to have filtered across my life, like ink spilled over a map. It is something I push against every day, when writing, when socializing on / offline. As much as I would like to talk about our contemporary world, and certain economical / political aspects of it, I don’t feel I could do them justice. Not yet, at least – lack of experience, and self-esteem, cause me to stumble on words that should come easily, and I throw away as many blog entries as I begin.
Maybe one day, I will find a way to meld my concerns, and this flowery prose.

*

If there’s one thing I hate when writing in free-fall, it is hitting that dead-wall of thoughts – particularly when it comes to description, for it’s here that I’m in my element. With no ready connotations or sensory imagery to hand, the words seem as stick-lines only. While there is a need for a more direct style in certain types of prose, it is not something I can easily maintain. Trying to cut out imagery would feel like cutting off a limb, and I’ve given up trying to walk in the shoes of any author I happen to admire, but could never replicate.
A voice is a voice; mine happens to channel synaesthesia, and it’s to this kind of imagery that I turn when I want to bring a character, a setting or a scene alive.

As someone with Chromesthesia, I perceive colours and shapes/patterns (the concurrent) in relation to sounds and spoken words (the inducer.) Music is a major trigger. A whole song or a single note, the words of a vocalist or the scales played on an instrument – all can spark a response in my mind that is equivalent to seeing the keys of a piano lit up in a rainbow under my fingers, the flick of a whip made of shining copper strands, or a cloud of paint sluicing across the floor.

Vision
Vision by Carol Steen; Oil on Paper

I don’t so much “see” these additional perceptions, in conjunction with sound, as acknowledge the presence of them in shapes and colours behind my eyes.

When a new voice is introduced, the sound of a song can lose its original-composition colour. For example, when listening to the lyrics of Nick Drake’s Riverman, the predominant shades are pine green and bark brown; these are the colours of an oboe, which is also the “texture” of his voice, rounded and smooth, lilting.
But channelled through the voice of a cover singer, the words may become copper, or dusky blue, particularly if the instrumentation used is also different.

An artist can have an inherent “colour” of their own, regardless of what they are singing or playing about. In this, semantics have little impact, for it is the sound of the voice / the instruments which creates the synaesthetic impression, with variations of shade depending on pitch and tone; Cat Power is smoky purple in her alto lines, but on the soprano notes of “Colours and the Kids,” her voice comes closer to lilac.

I’m as yet unsure whether these synaesthetic experiences (the concurrent)are due to the emotional reactions evoked by reading a text or listening to a sound, or if is the actual construct of the inducer which is the trigger (the individual graph/phonemes.) One theory points toward crossed-wires activity in the cerebral cortex, which is divided into lobes that govern our thought patterns/processes, and sensory reactions. This would go some way towards explaining how a mood can have a colour – which is my strongest perception of synaesthesia, leading me to wonder whether it is these causing the colour effect, and not the stimuli. But why then should I have an emotional reaction towards the number 3? It is my favourite, and also happens to “appear” to me in my favourite colour, turquoise. Again, this is not something “seen” so much as perceived. The two are intrinsically linked. Likewise, I will avoid the number 5, because it is yellow – a colour I’m not all that fond of.

When it comes to writing, there’s no greater pleasure to be had than painting with words. I mean this in the way that Nabokov saw the Russian word, “Tosca”:

Toska – noun /ˈtō-skə/ – Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness.
No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
― Vladimir Nabokov

Such a palette of connotative imagery, attached to one small set of graphemes. I personally “see” the colours deep purple and red, as of an autumn leaf on a bonfire. There is a strong tang of bittersweet regret, like iron rust, in speaking the word aloud.

Ashridge in Autumn

Nabokov observed that synaesthetes tend not to share the same sensory perceptions, but instead have variations which are unique to them. This discovery was made through the observations of his wife and little boy, both synaesthetes themselves:

“My wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different.”

Still more fascinating is the apparent blending of grapheme-colours in the parental genes, to form a natural progression in the mind of the child – rather like mixing a set of oil paints:

“Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.”

Another author, Patricia Lynne Duffy, tells of a similar experience in her excellent book, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synaesthetes colour their World:

‘My father and I…were reminiscing about the time I was a little girl, learning to write the letters of the alphabet. We remembered that, under his guidance, I’d learned to write all of the letters very quickly except for the letter ‘R’.
“Until one day,” I said to my father, “I realized that to make an ‘R’ all I had to do was first write a ‘P’ and then draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.”
“Yellow letter? Orange Letter?” my father said. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know,” I said. “‘P’ is a yellow letter, but ‘R’ is an orange letter. You know – the colors of the letters.”
“The colors of the letters?” my father said.’

My own grapheme/phoneme combinations possess some spatial relativity to one another. 9, for example, is large and purple, quietly majestic with a faint sheen; 6 is little and silly, light green; 3 is turquoise, medium-sized and slender, with just the faintest sheen of silver. The name of my dear friend Nillu Steltzer, appears to me in white and red. My own name is blue and green, as most words/names with the close proximity of letter A and E, tend to be (interestingly, the co-editor of Synaesthesia Magazine, Carlotta, has a dark blue name; but her Twitter handle, @1chae, is canary-yellow and teal.)

These sensory crossovers have crept into our everyday lexicon. There is the “black funk”, the “itchy mood”, the “cold white light of the moon.” Using these concrete nouns to describe an emotional response to a situation, we can cross the borders into the abstract world, where a mood can have a colour or a texture; and back again, into a sensory-overlap, where a name we see becomes something we can taste, of it is described thus. The text gains what can *almost* be experienced as something tangible.
This is just one way of shaking up the descriptive writing process, giving an audience more variety.

A setting that resembles an empty room can be brought to life by the juxtaposition of what a character knows on a conscious-sensory level v.s. what they perceive on a subconscious-synaesthetic level. If the narrative perspective is channelled through one or more characters, whether in first person voice or over the shoulder, an author can choose to employ variations of sense-imagery based upon life experiences / circumstances. For example, a man who has been down on his luck may perceive the world in shades of rot, decay and rust; he may draw the audience’s attention to the rust on his car – its tangy smell, the rough texture to touch, the strange whorl-patterns to look at – in comparison to the sun sparkling on the polish of his neighbour’s vehicle.

Provided there is enough sensory stimulus and crossover, the relevant connotations and memory-triggers can evoke a “mood” in the audience, which is close to experiencing synaesthesia. In the same way, a film director will employ mise-en-scène – props, costumes, alterations in the colour / shade of lighting – and diegetic / non-diegetic sound, to influence the perceptions of mood from one scene to another.

synaesthesia therapy
Image courtesy of www.kingsroadrocks.com/

Time can be made apparent in terms of light and dark, with the sun shifting over the far wall in an office throughout a long shift, as well as the systematic ticking of a clock, the precision of numbers (senses Sight and Sound.) A shift in the air – the clatter of pigeons and the whirl of their feathers – can summarize a mood of fidgety discontent (senses Sound and Sight.)

Animal Genius: Pegions

A building may take on a mood, or experience an oscillation of these, depending on the perceptions of the workers within – or perhaps the mood may be unique to the structure itself, as of a sentient being. Your everyday environment can become a living organism, should you choose to open all your senses to it.

At work, I cross all floors of the building at some point during the day. The past 3.5 years have imprinted enough sensory triggers to make a library’s worth of stimuli, ready for recall if I need to describe a setting. The building has the creaking personality and elegance of an aged dancer; she is made up of frayed carpets, panes that crackle and flake plaster like skin, and windows that weep rain. Her coffee rings and energy drink towers, are testament to the state of the shifting moods of colleagues. Standing in an empty stairwell, I have only to listen to gauge the mood of a day (which may remain unchanged for a shift, or change sharply at the turn of events.) There are always little clues to look out for, and it is these shifts in atmosphere – from the normal to the charged, to the downright crucial, that you should make yourself aware of, in your own environments.

Dana Vachon’s “Mergers and Acquisitions” is essentially a book about investment banking; but it is the vibrant descriptions of the characters and settings, and the treacle-darkness of comedy and pathos, which drive the narrative. An average office space is framed thus:

“I settled into the eight-by-eight cubicle whose carpet had once been gray, but over the years had been Jackson Pollocked with tumbling chunks of sesame chicken and spilled splashes of Starbucks lattes.”

Vachon worked as an investment banker, and had apparently stored a vast sum of memories to use as stimuli for later recall, when writing of his experiences on Wall Street. The semi-autobiographical protagonist, Tommy, is not one for emoting with direct words; his narrative is rich with sensory perceptions, which do the job for him.

“She was lying on one of the old, overstuffed sofas, her hair wrapped up in a lumpy, unwashed bun. She wore the same red kimono that she had surprised me with weeks before, but it too seemed different, and as I looked closer I saw that among its bright silken peacocks and dragons were burns from fallen cigarettes and stains from splashed sips of wine….I looked at the frogs and noted that the air in the apartment was nursing-home stale and that the windows had all been closed.”

If your immediate environment is lacking the sparks necessary for a scene, take yourself to an unfamiliar setting. My personal jolt-from-comfort-zone is to wander through the noise and bustle of our local farmers’ market. It’s unnerving – there are a great many people around, with voices thrown like knives – but it’s a feast for the senses, with everything from basic reactions (touch = soft suede, sound = chattering coins, smell = fresh fruit), to more extensive imagery (plums that resemble bullets; a rainbow swathe of macs.)

Make a point of listening to what is expressed through surroundings as well as speech – those pigeons circling overhead, what has disturbed them? Is it relative to the time of day, or to a red kite angling nearby? Can this be used as an image of approaching danger? The slate-coloured nimbus that has gathered on the horizon of an otherwise blue-sky day: how might this shift in the weather be used to convey a change of mood of a scene, from peaceful and scenic to unpredictable and troublesome? Will the characters notice and draw attention to it themselves – as with first person POV – or will the audience be aware of the tonal shift before them, as a form of dramatic irony in third person POV?

In her novel, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman’s teen protagonists have a unique form of image-notation – by jotting down a single, significant word that is relative to a time and place, they are able to recall the sensory aspects of it, and the subsequent mood that was felt:

“Meg and Claire looked at each other. They could hear the clock over the stove, ticking. They could hear doves in the courtyard. They wanted this moment to last forever. The sunlight was orange. They had to remember that. Meg would make certain they did. She fetched a piece of paper and wrote down the word orange, then folded the paper in half. They could cut up pears and write down all of the colours of the light and listen to people laugh and smell the blooms on the chestnut tree and forget about the rest of the world…they would have this memory of sitting in the kitchen, being happy.” – pg 133, The Story Sisters

Try this in your everyday experiences – particularly when time isn’t on your side – using a word/phrase/idiom to sum up the moment. I use “lamplight haven” and “orange-black” to help recall the sensory aspects of a night-walk; the stirring wind, leaves rattling along the pavement like fallen bones; steps taken a little more quickly than usual, and that odd halo of claws which tree branches make around a lamp. When writing such an experience into a scene, and stuck indoors on a blistering hot day, such sensory recall is priceless.

The trick is knowing when to jot something down on the spot, to record it before the moment is lost. This does involve a fair bit of diving into stairwells and ducking into alleyways. An audio recording / dictaphone app on your phone, is a good way of catching those emotional inflections which snagged you up – how it all made you feel at the time – to be channelled later when writing. Similarly, a photograph taken in-the-moment can help to trace back to the particular image of stillness in an afternoon, when the sky seemed made of lemon juice and fleece, the rain was silver, and the air was purple with the smell of buddleia.

Lewes

With regards to how light shifts across the walls of a room, perhaps mark its passage in terms of what a character pays attention to, in relation to emotions – do they notice the ruddy tinge of the sun while waiting for an agonizing shift to end? If they are waiting in expectation of a loved one’s arrival, is the light more notable than the creeping shadows; or if the visitor are late, do the corners of the room waver in uncertainty? Does the smell of wildflowers through the open window, unnerve them in the sense that the loved one may have chosen “freedom”, and changed their mind?

The progression of time can also be marked as a seasonal narrative – how does this affect your characters? Do they notice when the sun sets further along the western skyline, disappearing behind a different building each night? When the light shifts from spring’s green-gold haze, to the stark gold bars of summer, and thus into the pastels and burnt palette of autumn and the silver-black starkness of winter, does the continuum leave them melancholic, or edgy with the anticipation of change? In this way, the combination of sensory-stimuli and connotative imagery can evoke an emotional response in the audience. Their memories may be triggered; their thinking may turn to aspects of their own lives, emphasizing relativity, by a description framed in synaesthetic imagery, as with Baudelaire’s “Correspondences“:

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

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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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Writing Reality: Method Writing (Through their Eyes)

14/10/2013 at 05:45 (Method Writing, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I am a method writer.

It’s hardly a new concept; a literary adaptation of the emotionally charged technique used by thespians on stage and screen. Method actors bounce light off of the mirror of personal inflection, bringing into focus the characters they wish to embody as well as portray; they seek “imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with unique and original behavior,” brought about by “performances grounded in the human truth of the moment”.

Which isn’t a million miles away from what writers are after.

Some film directors are known to use/have used versions of the Method, to induce a necessary emotional state in their cast. While working on The Shining, Stanley Kubrick “had his cast watch Eraserhead, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, to put them in the right frame of mind.” This is channeling external creativity, as a form of pseudo-mood input.

Before settling to write, I’ll use the same technique, as well as several others to create a mood within myself that’s relative to a scene and/or narrative voice. Creative outlets – music, film, literature – of similar genres and mood, can be filtered through personal memories to tap into an induced emotional state. The audience only sees the end results, of course. The inspiration stays hidden in the wings, whispering cues.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t maintain a steady mood pattern. We tend to oscillate between whatever’s going on in the immediate day-to-day, and the sort of abstracts that prey on anyone’s mind (existence, climate change, world domination, economy, etc.) That’s before we even get close to creative input, either imposed on us or sought out to entertain ourselves. Picking up a book and reading a few passages on my work break, can cause a U-turn for whatever mood I was in – from wistful (fantasy) to dialed-down sharp (science fiction, crime thriller). Which is fine, so long as I wasn’t intending to preserve the former mood for later writing.

Contrary to popular belief, the Method doesn’t need 24 hour submersion. Prior to writing, I’ll have a “build-up” of mood and character, and will become very careful who and what I allow in through the filters. There’s no call to be rude; it’s just a Fading Out from the real world for an hour or so, prior to and during writing. This is “closing the door”, and for me it’s not only about shutting off external noise. It’s damage limitation where mood is concerned; whatever I hear on the news, read in a book or feel for a song, might colour my writing with an unintended atmosphere. Working with synaesthesia, where sound and mood appear in colours, there’s always the chance that I’ll inadvertently write a character’s “warm” mood too “cool” because of a blue song going on a loop in my head.

A difficult day, a trying time of life, can make all the difference between a good and bad writing experience. If you’re aware of emotional flux, take responsibility for your moods and writing – work them around each other. Work them to your advantage, to avoid writing-blackout. I tend to keep several projects on-the-go at once, all of which have different genres, setting and tone. This allows for a margin of success; more chance of hitting the right note at any point in life.

Look to film directors for affirmation in doing this. If necessary, they’re prepared to work off the cuff, shooting non-linear scenes and forgoing a chronological framework, in favour of getting the best out of the cast and setting(s.) Sometimes the season is out of kilter with the plot; freak weather patterns can emerge. War can break out. A cast member might sicken. A piece of equipment may require updating. To avoid wasting time, other scenes will be filmed instead; the results edited together later.

Use this technique in your writing. Don’t feel bad for working outside a standard chronology of events. Life happens. If your mood fits one scene and not another, why waste it for the sake of keeping to narrative structure? You’ll find an enhanced sense of attachment to your characters; their actions/reactions can become symbolic of your own, and vice versa. A setting can seem your home-base, your emotional playground (or indeed, your personal hell.) The story will feel bound up in your own life-narrative. If it gets the work done – and as long as you take care to leave bread-crumb notes of what goes where – the audience isn’t going to know any better. They may be more likely to feel the story reverberate with what you were going through at the time, though only in emotional terms – the details remain your own.

Generally speaking, real life doesn’t allow for a sudden drop-of-the-hat reaction to a writing mood. I’m lucky enough to have few responsibilities or plays on my time outside of work, and can generally settle to a routine. This has its merits and drawbacks – it’s easy to get complacent. A writer would do well to push themselves out of their comfort zone, to test whether a character’s emotions and mindset are so easy to grasp when set against an entirely alien backdrop.

This is a useful technique when a story’s in pre-development. Take the early outline of a character – their name and whatever specifications are to hand – and write them into a scene of high emotional intensity. It can be outside of the story itself if you wish; I personally like setting characters in a war zone, or at the site of a volcanic eruption. It’s when we’re emotionally stripped raw, that true idiosyncrasies and flaws come to light.

Get to know your phone’s video/audio recording app. With the afore-mentioned dramatic scenes, I find recording vocal inflections and references to mannerisms (facial expressions, paralinguistic features like body language) priceless. Record whatever ad-libs come, symbolic references, interaction with other characters etc – these can all help to develop and strengthen a character’s voice, both in mannerisms and speech. Ideas are often triggered just by speaking in freeflow; the beauty of the app being, you can replay your thoughts at a later time.

A soundtrack crafted around a character’s personality can help enhance and inspire their thought patterns, actions and reactions. When listening to my iPod, a lyric may hangnail in my mind as something a character could relate to – either in general mindset, or at a particular point in their lives. This entry was an early compilation for my novel, End of the Line, when it was in its first draft. Songs attached themselves to characters and scenes along the way.

When creating your own soundtrack, make a point of heading tracklists with a characters’ name, adding notations as to which song is relevant to which scene. Then when it comes time to continue from where you’ve left off – particularly if real life has forced you to quit mid-scene – give that tracklist a listen, either before or during the writing process. It helps to define individual soundscapes for a narrative voice, for each chapter-scene.

This is equivalent to a film’s diegetic / non-diegetic sound; that is, what a character hears in their environment or prefers to listen to, as opposed to what sounds are outside the film-universe, laid over what is being filmed; outside the narrative construct and a character’s experience, but audible to the audience.

Put in a literary context, your Method soundtrack can be layered with the aesthetic and tone of a character – any song you feel fits their personality – as well as sounds mirroring unique reactions to a situation. Try subverting your own expectations of tone by shifting abruptly between a character or object’s signature “theme”, while writing a change in atmosphere and events. The resulting juxtaposition can really get under the skin, becoming symbolic:


(Hellraiser: Deader, Rick Bota)

You might even feel jangled enough to write this crossover into a scene, to evoke the same symbolic tension in your audience:

“What he heard was the clear, clarion call of a trumpet, its music cold as the air from the snow-covered mountains of his homeland. Pure and crisp, the trumpet call rose bravely above the darkness and death and despair, to pierce his heart.
Sturm answered the trumpet’s call with a glad battle cry…Again the trumpet sounded, and again Sturm answered, but this time his voice faltered, for the trumpet call he heard had changed tone. No longer sweet and pure, it was braying and harsh and shrill.
No! thought Sturm in horror as he neared the dragon. Those were the horns of the enemy! He had been lured into a trap! Around him now he could see draconian soldiers, creeping from behind the dragon, laughing cruelly at his gullibility… Fear knotted Sturm’s stomach; his skin grew cold and clammy. The horn call sounded a third time, terrible and evil. It was all over. It had all been for nothing. Death, ignominious defeat awaited him.” – pgs 121/122, “Dragons of Winter Night,” Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman.

Sometimes, circumstances can’t be passed over for writing. It becomes essential to jot down whatever notes you can, to later reactivate whatever you were feeling at the time an idea hit, or an inspirational scene was witnessed. This is memory-sense recall. The idea of key words was, for me, inspired by Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters. In the narrative, a girl writes the word “orange” on a scrap of paper, to carry as a constant reminder of one blissful afternoon spent with her family:

“Meg and Claire looked at each other. They could hear the clock over the stove, ticking. They could hear doves in the courtyard. They wanted this moment to last forever. The sunlight was orange. They had to remember that. Meg would make certain they did. She fetched a piece of paper and wrote down the word orange, then folded the paper in half. They could cut up pears and write down all of the colours of the light and listen to people laugh and smell the blooms on the chestnut tree and forget about the rest of the world… they would have this memory of sitting in the kitchen, being happy.” – pg 133, The Story Sisters

You’re looking to evoke the same emotional response you felt, by reading the sensory words and remembering exactly how the light was, what smells were in the air, how the air moved about you. This is Realism – walking back through time, recreating scenes from your life to bring scenes to the page. Reread old blog entries and that of friends, to engage once again with how you once felt in a situation similar to what a character might be going through.

Keeping a diary or journal framed in a character’s voice is a priceless component of Method writing. I regularly dip into the thoughts of protagonists by jotting down notes from their lives – mundane events, love interests, secret fears etc. I often write short poems through a character’s perspective, if they’re so inclined to do so. These may or may not enter the narrative proper; but they’re handy to have on the side, as a means of slipping in and out of character. Connections sometimes leap out of nowhere – things that were not apparent to me at the time of serious writing, but which become strikingly relevant when framed in a looser context.

Free-fall writing is equivalent to dropping stones down a well, listening for the splash. These are stream-of-consciousness sessions, which may or may not have an immediate bearing on an ongoing project, but are written in the style and tone of a piece I’ll be currently working on. These short blog entries are often framed in a character’s voice, or run parallel to its tone, and will sit adjacent to the actual story like a slip-road to a motorway. They are exercises in writing to music, spurts of creative output, for the sheer joy of imagery and often frantic emotional output. Words wind about and through the music, snagging lyrics and tugging them along for the ride, taking leaps between my own thoughts and that of a character. These entries are examples of the freeform style.

The end result often resembles a wordy Pollock painting, but they’re my most honest work next to life-blog entries. All formality, all boring thoughts of perspective and chronology, go out the window. Sessions like this are good for loosening the writing limbs before opening an actual project, or just to shake up the imagination – and they’re great for getting into character / setting tone.

This is Method writing to me. Preparation for what lies ahead; getting comfortable in a character’s perspective, picking up the narrative reins; grasping the sense of what an imaginary world is like, drawing on relevant personal experiences to colour up and enhance a mood and/or theme. Flipping the timer to let inspiration run between reality and fantasy.

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Writing Reality: Fighting the Block

21/08/2013 at 13:11 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )


It’s the head ‘flu we all suffer at some point or another. Symptoms may differ from person to person, and I wholly believe that – like ‘flu – there are different strains of writer’s block.

So when it hits, I’ll step back and analyse. Break things down to Where and When and How. Was it a character’s lack of depth that snarled me up, an inability to find their voice? A scene falling flat? Or perhaps it’s other, extraneous details preying on my mind, so that writing simply has to fall as a priority?

If it’s the latter, outside of what I can control, then I’ll allow myself leeway. We all should. Life is full of its pressure points, and that’s not to say that anything outside of writing, is an unnecessary burden. Far from it. Our external lives must balance our internal literary lives, to keep us whole. Too much of either, and we’ll still fall prey to the Block.

Make a point of prioritizing. Only you know what is most important in your life; no one has the right to question your lack or surplus of output, unless you have made it clear you are responsible for others’ needs and cares. Then feelings must come first, the outside world taking precedence over imaginary ones.

Believe me, this is hard to admit to myself, let alone advise it. Writing for me is the safe-guard against internal inertia, the salmon-leap of serotonin, which I run parallel with a bloody good workout, or sushi for dinner. But it is a solo project; it doesn’t take other’s feelings or needs into account. So if a more pertinent issue crops up, kicking my creative self into orbit, I’ve learned to wait until said issues have been dealt with; until I can focus again. When that colourful ball of creativity drops back, I’m ready for the catch.

Sometimes, what’s needed is a a reaffirmation of Self. Learning again what and who your influences are. In this sense, I go back to basics when writer’s block – of any variety – hits.

Past Influences

If you have a library pass, exploit it. Take out old favourites from your childhood days, the stories that sang to you with vivid colours, impressing on your mind the formulative images that would sew the seeds of creativity. Don’t be ashamed to refer back to these little gems; they were the building blocks of your writing career. I make a point each year, of rereading every Beatrix Potter story. Revisiting those beautiful pictures, in juxtaposition with often dark tales spun of gentle words, takes me back to when my mind was first sparked with ideas.

If you still have the beloved, battered copies from your own childhood, so much the better. Thumb fondly through those pages, and revisit those precious moments when you were read to, or snuggled in some cozy corner of a rainy afternoon. When you first felt the stirrings of a writer’s desire to emulate.

Alternative Courses

While in the library, make a point of visiting the reference section. I can’t extol enough the wonders of curling up in a corner with an Encyclopedia or book of photography, flicking through facts and prints. I personally favour collections of abandoned industries, derelict houses – nature reclaiming what was taken, to present starkly poignant mindscapes. These can also be found online:

 photo 761e3ffe-96eb-4266-84d1-63a077882d5c_zps125771c3.jpg
Picture credit: Francesco Mugnai

Look at these pictures long enough, and images start to leap out. Stories begin to walk through the mind, faint at first, growing stronger.

Look up natural history, local history – world-changing events. Twist circumstances in your mind. Steampunk is an excellent example of the what if genre, a web filled with alternative strands.

Visit sites like Etsy.com, to find examples of steampunk paraphernalia. I get a creative headspin just poring through the amazing creations of featured artists. If you’re going to borrow an inspirational point for a plot, character or scene, do make sure to refer back to source, with a dropped link and perhaps an email-request to the relevant artist. Also, be aware that many libraries withhold the right to check out reference books, so make sure you have your own recording equipment to hand, for taking notes.

People-Watching

Interact with others. Try not to make it too obvious what you’re after, which is Live Inspiration. Listen carefully to anecdotes told down the pub; keep a keen ear open for strangers’ talk, if you’re barflying. Go to social scenes where one of your characters might put in an appearance; if you really feel like a bit of method-writing, dress like them too. Put yourself in their shoes / slippers / hooves, whatever fits. I make a point of recording fairytale snippets that come to mind, in a journal supposedly kept by one of my novel’s protagonists. Because her diary is a cornerstone of the plot, I embellish the one I have to hand with cut-outs from magazines, of dark leafy places and twisting brambles, thunder-struck skies and stormy seas. These images suit Siobhan’s personality; they are what she would surround herself with. In turn, it puts me in her mindframe to walk outside late at night, to follow cats around corners. I then rattle off quick blog entries while still inside her mind, such as this, to refer back to when stuck for a song, or a thought.

Talk to older members of your family about distant relatives, or about their own youth. I personally love nothing more than to sit in my Nanna’s kitchen while she sets the table for dinner, listening to her stories from growing up as an orphan in Newcastle, with a stern Victorian grandma and the fallout from WWII. She tells me about rationing, about making-do and playing outside all day; about the resultant scrapes she and her playmates got into. About the day-to-day bravery and stoicism of the local coal miners and shipbuilders, from which I’m descended. So many pockets of time, inspiration waiting to be found.

Echoing the greats

Hunter S Thompson had a fabulous method of refreshing his senses with old inspirations – he “used to type out pages from The Great Gatsby, just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way.” Open up copies of your favourite books, and try it yourself. Find the rhythm of sentence structure, the black humour, the gorgeous metaphors that first struck you, and inspire you still. Rewrite them to feel where that author was coming from, what made them choose to write in this certain way – how can it benefit your own style?

Look to TSR’s Dragonlance saga, as an example of what might be born when the creative input of others is put to innovative use. Beginning life as an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign, written and designed by authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, it is still one of the most popular fantasy series in print. The character Raistlin Majere is famously cited as Terry Phillip’s creation, with the latter putting on a hissing voice full of bitter cynicism, which would become the mage’s trademark. A character was reborn from the barest threads of an idea, into a man filled with twisting ambition and desperate pathos.

If you’ve got the guts, ask open-minded friends to assist in discovering the hidden nuances of your characters and/or narrative structure. Have them read lines aloud; encourage them to put on voices, to branch out in ways they feel are applicable to a scene or personality. Jot down everything, or better yet record it. In the meantime, have a bloody good laugh, while finding reality inside your characters.

Stream of Consciousness (AKA fuck linearity)

Another tactic I like to use is stream-of-consciousness music-writing. My personal method involves a little alcohol to loosen inhibitions, to let thoughts freefall, but it’s not mandatory. Just put yourself into a solitary environment, where you can find internal quiet.

This is where listening to lyrics is useful, as opposed to when writing in earnest, when they may seep through to permeate what you’re trying to write. In this case, you want that to happen. I’ll let the message of the artist hangnail in my mind, turning up fresh inspiration with each second my fingers blur. I won’t let myself pause for breath, or raise my eyes to edit what’s been written.

Become heedless of time, word counts, genre and characterization; of such tedious things as narrative and plot. This is freefall writing, letting the mind go wild. Whether it ends up in a manuscript afterwards is irrelevant. This is You, upending your mind and everything it holds; whatever emotions bind you at the time.

This entry was the result of a recent stream-writing episode.

You’ll know yourself when it’s time to stop, to analyse. There may be lines of dialogue or internal monologue; there may be the sparks that will set an stagnating story ablaze with colour.

It’s about allowing your mind to feel unfettered by choice, by fear of responsibility. It’s about relearning the basics that got you started on this wild road in the first place, full of its tangled lines and open fields and dark thorns.
It’s about this:

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Finding the beauty and power in words, and letting them come back to you of their own accord.

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I’m here to take you now..

13/10/2012 at 15:02 (Reviews) (, , , , )


http://www.nme.com/blog/index.php?blog=1&p=12856&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1

Somehow, this bloke read my mind. Published a couple of days ago in NME’s online forum, this very topic has had occasion to cross my mind, usually after sticking my iPod on shuffle. As those of you who follow my blog will know, I don’t adhere to genre or era. If it sticks, makes me want to go back and learn the lyrics, makes my hair stand up and my heart do that cute dance it does when it likes something, then it’s In.

So when Led Zepp’s Stairway to Heaven (obvious choice I know, but I’m playing by generic terms here so everyone gets the joke) is instantly followed by Eiffel 65’s Blue … you get the picture. This is the whole point of random shuffle, when you’re in that dangerously miscellaneous mood, can’t decide what you want to be, so become Lord of everything and nothing at once.

Yes, like poor Tetsuo Shima.

Music through the ages, changes to converge with – or repel – the standards set of social climes, and they sure as hell aren’t static. Back in the 50’s, older folk whose youth belonged in the 20’s and 30’s, shook their heads and sucked their teeth whenever Buddy Holly came on the jukebox, or Presley started in with his pelvis-melvis swaying. Yet they grew up through the Charleston era, a world of naughty flapper girls and innuendo. No strangers then, to scandal and cheek (of all kinds.)

Presley and Holly pushed against the stoicism and primness of post-war times. They called for the youngsters of the day to kick back and relax, the dark days were over. On a bleaker note, into the 70’s the Clash came of age in the wake of the Notting Hill riots, determined that society would bloody well hear them speak; that things not only had to change, but had to be dug down into, the origins brought forward for questioning. Times were hard. So what? So find out where the poor soil lies. Burrow down until you find the weak roots. Regrowth starts here, but only when ideas change.

In an earlier entry, I made a point of saying that we fight white-collar wars. This is pertaining to my own portion of the world of course, a decidedly middle-class arena, full of first-world woes. But things such as homelessness, starvation, addiction and economical crisis, circulate on a much broader scale in the world, and as always it’s up to the artists to keep recalling attention to them when the media lose interest.

DEVLIN feat. Yasmin – “Runaway”. Not music I’d personally listen to, and I say this without a hint of snottiness. The lyrics speak a modern slant on an age-old problem, one known as “mispers” where I work. A missing person isn’t just a statistic. They are a person who, for whatever reason – mental illness, threat to their life on the estate they’ve grown up in, personal debt, etc – have decided to leave all they knew behind, disappear from the lives of those who love and care for them. They run to the thin blue line of the horizon, in the belief that the world on the other side is a better, more productive, more welcoming place. The story of DEVLIN’s video is of a kid growing up in a grotty council estate, his logic being that anywhere’s better than this; that somewhere else, he might flourish and become who he’s meant to be. The faces of those left behind, tell their own version of the story.

Try comparing this to Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart”, or Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String.” Now, see where the problem lies? We’re not just crossing generations here. We’re crossing genres. And a lot of the problem with these dumbarse memes that randomly pop up on Facebook from time to time (clogging my updates feed) is they in no way give ground to context. Justin Bieber (pop for tweens) vs. Led Zepp (rock for big kids)? Come on. The Beach Boys weren’t exactly writing scintillating lyrics. They were, however, creating catchy pop. Much as less-known bands like Broken Social Scene (Canadian, baroque pop) are doing the same thing. You just have to know where to look. It’s no good listening to your local radio station all day, then bleating how it all sounds the same. Because it is. They give the most air-time to upcoming, easy-listening artists that will piss off the least amount of people with their (non) lyrics. Notice how Eminem didn’t get an awful lot of airplay before his punchy lyrics started meaning something to people, particularly disenfranchised youngsters in the mid-90’s, who then phoned in demanding more of his work – unedited, if possible. They got their wish, but the bleeps stayed.

Truth is, music comparisons can’t be made when the structure of comparison is so broad and shallow. It won’t take the weight. We need context here. To write off all modern bands in a stinking pile, is to to reduce songs like this

to the same level as this
*insert Katy Perry video clip because I can’t be bothered with that waste of my time*

See? I have my own prejudices. But there is hope for modern music, with bands like the National around. With lyricists who speak a very real truth, like DEVLIN.

The music hasn’t died yet.

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