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: Personification of Autumn

09/12/2013 at 05:45 (Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


There’s a familiar wind back in the city this week. It wears a blue cape and likes to hurl itself up and down the cobbles, whistling through its teeth. The trees, once decked out in their finest gold, now shiver and quake in the sight of its cold eye. I turn my collar up, walking to and from work through crisp black shadows, and that wind waits on my doorstep, ready to leap out and slap me upside the head with quick cold fingers.

Autumn is my favourite time of year, for its colours and its medley of imagery. Beginning with a faint song of melancholy in the brassy light and the changing west wind, it ends with high wreaths of silver in the trees, white mornings like diamonds strewn by a passing queen. The forests turn quiet with the cold, ready and waiting for midwinter freeze; they buckle on armour and lower their heads to the stiffening winds. The sun is a capricious fellow, at times grumpy and sullen as he winds his grey scarf about his throat, while on other days he will grin with a hard, shining mouth. Leaves skirl and dance; they twine gold necklaces about the roots of their erstwhile fathers, where some flicker-flames still cling on for dear life with numb little twigs, in the face of that wind … But all become mulch in the soil, at the end.

These are all examples of word imagery. The wind does not wear a cape or have a mouth full of teeth, though it is a concrete noun. It has no thoughts or emotions, and is governed by nature, which in turn is no more caring or hateful towards mankind than we are able to completely control it.

When writing, it often pays to give human sentience / characteristics to non-human beings and concepts. This can help the audience to understand and appreciate the latter more, through emotional context and relativity.

To say that the wind is fierce in its intensity, is to lend it a recognizable emotion – we’ve all felt fierce at some point, when our eyes burned and our mouths ran dry; when we felt ready to tear ourselves apart over a situation.
Likewise, we know what teeth are capable of doing – they tear, rend, cause bitter pain, chew food, click together with irritation. To say that this north wind, back in my home city once more (and likely to be a lodger for the next four months) has sharp teeth that he likes to use on my skin, is just a more interesting way of saying, “The wind is bloody cold.”

To give something emotional resonance is to engage with it, whether on a positive or negative level – I know I’ve cursed that wind many a time for daring to fling pellets of rain in my face, but really, what is the point of getting cross at something that neither bears me ill will, nor laughs at my numb fingers? Still, it makes me feel better to swear at it.

Personification is everywhere; we hear it all the time, lending personal features to otherwise abstract concepts. Father Christmas, Grandfather Time; Cupid as the embodiment of Love; and in Richard Adams’ Watership Down, the Black Rabbit of Inle is the personification of fear, death and inevitability:

black rabbit

“‘Now as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inle is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off… We come into the world and we have to go: but we do not go merely to serve the turn of one enemy or another…We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inle, and only by his will.” – pg 276, Watership Down, Richard Adams

By the same token, the rabbits of this novel are subject to anthropomorphism. This is similar to personification, and while both give emotional and physical attributes to non-humans / inanimate objects and concepts, I find that anthropomorphism seems better suited to the creatures, while personification appeals more to the abstracts. For example, Bigwig is made an officer of the Efrafan Owsla – he is an anthropomorphic example of rabbit leadership and governing, with the contextual rationality and intelligence involved that is not usually attributed to their natural way of life:

“‘What can you do?”
‘I can run and fight and spoil a story telling it. I’ve been an officer in an Owsla.’
‘Fight, can you? Could you fight him?’ said Woundwort, looking at Campion.
‘Certainly, if you wish.’ The stranger reared up and aimed a heavy cuff at Campion, who leapt back just in time.” – pg 317

He can also be seen as the embodiment of that military spirit of “do-or-die” attitude.

In this way, the rabbits are allowed to develop behavioural patterns, mannerisms and dialogue similar to that of humans; this allows the audience to engage with and respond to them on a deeper level. Their instinctive reactions are somewhat quelled, to allow personalities to develop and the narrative to progress, rather than each rabbit scattering aimlessly and without thought. Much of the novel hinges upon planning, strategies and tactics which would not be applicable in reality.

A Simile is a figure of speech used when comparing one thing to another that is otherwise unlike it, by way of adding the words “like” and “as”, to create an image that will enhance writing:

“He ran through the field; it was as though his feet had wings.”
“She was young and fair, and looked like a lily, clad all in white.”

Said images rely on the audience having some contextual knowledge of what makes up the target comparative element; they must have an awareness of the lily being white and smooth, and of wings being capable of flight, thus lending connotations of speed to the feet. A simile won’t work when the target falls short of what the image intends (though this can sometimes be used for comic / sarcastic effect):

“That’s as clear as mud.”

“The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.”

But when it does work, a simile can drive home a memorable message with emotional resonance:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” – Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, Blade Runner, 1982

Only take care that the two elements you use for comparison are equal in part to what they convey when standing alone, in order for them to work in a combined context. A lily flower is different to a young woman in that it is a plant, and does not possess sentience; but it does hold connotations of grace, beauty and pale smoothness, which can be positively aligned with her appearance in a simile. Put into another context with a different setting, this can also be used in a negative sense to convey her paleness and sorrow, perhaps after illness or a death, as the latter has connotative links with the flower.

A Metaphor is when “a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”; this is in keeping with Simile, but in a more subtle way than actively telling the audience something is like or as another. With a metaphor, these words are omitted, and the audience is left with the bare bones of the image.

“He walked with a stony step and an icy gaze; none dared get in his way.”

A stone is not a man, nor can ice actually stay in the eye. But the qualities of both (hardness, cold) and the subsequent connotations (determination, implacability; unfriendliness, lacking emotion) are useful when conveying an image of someone powerful and difficult to approach or sway from their path. But one way to upset the balance would be to throw too many comparisons in at once – especially when they conflict with the overall image:

Ice lived in his heart. He smouldered with the flames of his anger; it was eating him alive.”

The symbolism of fire = anger, doesn’t sit well with the image of a “cold-hearted” man. Fire would extinguish itself in the cold, ice would melt. Although we’re not dealing with literal meanings here, it’s still worth paying attention to what connotative messages you are sending out with metaphors / similes used.
On the other hand, this can be useful when applied to another character to create a large-scale metaphor of conflict, perhaps in a relationship:

“The flames of her temper often thawed his heart. He couldn’t help but laugh, in spite of himself.”

Try wherever possible to create your own imagery. There are many tired metaphors and similes out there, which have been strung up as clichés – they work at a pinch, but can often lead to a trite tone in a piece of writing. Look around; take in as much of the world as possible. I make a note of every image that strikes me while out and about – the sky strewn with cumulus clouds like pebbles on the beach (simile); the full blue cape of night, thrown about the shoulders of the world (metaphor / personification).

Always be prepared to record more, and hoard them like treasure, because if you’re anything like me, the hard work will really begin once you’re sat down to write. As obvious as this sounds, you can make life a bit easier (and save time) by having a stockpile of key words / phrases to use in imagery. It beats staring at the screen or paper, rummaging through your memory for something you knew you wanted to say.

Unless you’re referring to the inside of your head as a blank sheet, of course.

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The Colour of Loss

21/10/2013 at 12:51 (Personal, Synaesthesia) (, , , , )


As someone with sound-colour synaesthesia, I’ve often wondered if moods can be similarly affected by sensory-crossover. This entry more than answered my question. A beautiful depiction of mood-synaesthesia.

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Crossed-wires world: Synaesthesia

12/05/2013 at 00:30 (Personal, Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing) (, , , , , , , , )


The peculiarity of a sense-liaison between sound and colour – present for as long as I can remember – only became apparent when, as a child, I tried illustrating to a classmate how her laughter appeared in my head as Red. Red as a fire engine, though not as boxy; more a flare, like spilled paint.

The look she and others in our P.E group directed at me was of narrow-eyed confusion. They stared around at each other, and I could almost hear the sarcasm dripping from the Wow mouthed between them. Already sensitive to the social mores of school, I retreated quickly. They were careful not to call out when around me, after that tentative experiment. Perhaps they were afraid I was hoarding their essence like some freaky audio-tape.

They wouldn’t have been far wrong, actually.

It’s not easy, trying to explain to others what can’t be projected, seen by all. I speak from the experience of a persistent mental illness, unrelated to Synaesthesia, which is the term I eventually found when researching this crossover of senses. Before the casual revelation to my peers, I’d automatically assumed that they, along with all the human race, experienced the same things I did. We had all been taught that the sky is blue, that grass is green, etc. We all agreed on those universal factors. Surely then, this couldn’t be much different?

I have vivid memories of sitting on my parents’ laps as a nipper, being read to and seeing not only their voices (consistent to this day) but the shapes that certain words would make. Studying A Level English Language – primarily phonetics, and the many origin-tributaries running to our language river – provided further stimuli. I became accustomed to the pleasantly fragile, lightly-hued words derived from ancient French, which stood in direct contrast to the sharp-angles of Latin, the ruggedly dark stumps of Germanic. I memorized phonetics in relation to how they appeared in my head, shapes and colours; these could then be applied to essays and exams. Believe what you will, but it’s to this little extra that I ascribe passing through A Levels with flying colours. No pun intended.

Though musical instruments may shift in tone or volume, they generally remain consistent across repeated listens, with colours typically appearing as clouds, undulating ribbons and/or flares. Vocals – spoken or sung – create something akin to stencils on wallpaper, heard over backing music. This also relates to the layering of instruments, with an orchestra often overwhelming my head in brass “rings”, string “wires” and woodwind “ribbons.”

A perfect example of this sound-colour layering, can be found in The Velvet Underground and Nico’s “Venus in Furs.” On a seabed of turquoise, the ostrich guitar rings out an overlay of brass flares:

The voice of the late Nick Drake ripples oboe-green across the bark brown of his guitar finger-picking:

Very rarely, a singer’s voice will alter, and then it is usually across time. At the beginning of his career in the 60’s, Leonard Cohen’s vocals were honey brown, fluidly loose:

Cured with age, alcohol and living, his vocals have aged beyond former reediness to now appear as lowland jagged teeth, darkest brown rock.

Of course, I don’t actually *see* these rocks in any clear detail. Nothing comes close to real definition; only vague shapes and colours, yet still able to evoke the memories of things read, semantics studied, images seen on TV. It has certainly made my life as a reader and writer more pleasurable, with my greatest weakness found in metaphor and simile. Synaesthetic language is charming for me in any text, and I will repeat certain phrases to myself, to find their colours fully. Alice Hoffman, Jeffrey Eugenides and Truman Capote are all masters of this art, and most influential to my style.

Neurologist Richard E Cytowic defines Synaesthesia as “a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” Certainly, this would explain the unplanned nature of the sound-colours I have experienced. The metaphors employed in writing are only a later-shaped event. Cytowic goes further in prescribing a diagnostic criteria:

* Synesthesia is involuntary and automatic.
* Synesthetic perceptions are spatially extended, meaning they often have a sense of “location.” For example, synesthetes speak of “looking at” or “going to” a particular place to attend to the experience.
* Synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial).
* Synesthesia is highly memorable.
* Synesthesia is laden with affect.

This rules out the idea that synaesthetes experience any kind of perceived effort. The sensory mingling is instantaneous. The clearest method of visual explanation might be found in Disney’s Fantasia, specifically the Soundtrack intermission:

Universally accepted soft shapes for soft sounds; sharp striations for the harder instruments. Easily understood by syn / non-synaesthetes alike, but as Cytowic defines, “Synaesthetes nevertheless choose more precise colours than non-synesthetes and are more consistent in their choice of colours given a set of sounds of varying pitch, timbre and composition.”

Defined as a neurological condition, Synaesthesia is certainly one of the less intrusive to normal life – though some synaesthetes have described experiencing sensory overload (“Cytowic has famously described a man who tasted shapes; someone tasted tunes; another was referred for counseling when she told the assistant principal of her school – ill-advisedly — that when she kissed her boyfriend she “saw orange sherbet foam”. One was so surrounded by spatial imagery, excited by everything from the alphabet to shoe sizes, that she explained “My entire life, everything, has a place that goes all round my body.”)

Variations of Synaesthesia have made a fascinating kaleidoscope for me to twist. From believing all humans experience sound-colour coalition, to wondering if maybe another CAT scan was in order, I’ve now discovered that any of the five senses may intermingle. James Wannerton, president of the UK Synaesthesia Association, “chose his companions not based on their personality or looks, but because of how their names tickled his taste buds.” This “relatively rare form is known as word-taste or lexical gustatory synaesthesia.”

Imagine standing before a choir, tasting it as you would a pizza – the thick crustiness of bass, mellow cheese of alto, sharp tomato sauce of baritone, delicate spice of soprano. Of course, the caveat being that when Wannerton experiences a sensory mouthful unpalatable or ultimately overwhelming, he must deviate to avoid distraction (or spitting) – “these days if he has to work with someone with an overpowering first name, he chooses to refer to them by their middle names, or just re-christens them with an new one. And talking to people in a crowded room can taste a bit like putting lots of strange things into a food processor at once.”

Daniel Tammet, FRSA, autistic savant and writer, was tested and found to have Synaesthesia relative to his savant-memory abilities, and the Aspergers’ Syndrome diagnosed in 2005. He argues that “savant abilities are not ‘supernatural’ but are ‘an outgrowth’ of ‘natural, instinctive ways of thinking about numbers and words’, and that “the brains of savants can, to some extent, be retrained, and that normal brains could be taught to develop some savant abilities.”

Tammet describes “his visual image of 289 as particularly ugly, 333 as particularly attractive, and pi as beautiful.” Indeed, Tammet “holds the European record for reciting pi from memory to 22,514 digits in five hours and nine minutes on 14 March 2004.” No small feat, and certainly a boon in any educational field wishing to tap alternative methods of education, as researchers at the Universities of Sussex and Edinburgh hope in their studies of savants and Synaesthesia.

In Wannerton’s case, as a boy in school, “every time he heard a sound as a young boy, he had an immediate and involuntary taste on his tongue. Hearing the name Anne Boleyn, gave him a strong taste of pear drops, making some history lessons a treat. In fact most monarchs in British history came with a specific taste, which meant he could reel them off with ease.” I know I could put this particular variation to good use. Having suffered poor Math ratings since I began school – with numbers often jumbling up as a useless medley – I would gladly accept a memorable mind-menu in order to recall all of my timetables; to be capable of flipping them about as sums in my head, or in Tammet’s case, to perceive them with spatial awareness / emotional attributes (“the number 6 apparently has no distinct image, yet what he describes as an almost small nothingness, opposite to the number 9 which he calls large and towering.”)

In conjunction with Cytowic’s definitions – particularly, “laden with affect” – Dr Simner of Edinburgh university points out that the
“brains of synaesthetes have extra clusters of connectivity, and there are differences in the grey matter of the brain – an extra thickness is seen in certain areas.” These areas correlate with a study performed on Tammet in 2008, which “concluded that his abilities might be explained by hyperactivity in one brain region (the left prefrontal cortex)” – the area of the brain “implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior.”

When Prof Jamie Ward performed studied on Wannerton’s brain, he was “asked to think about words which have good and less palatable tastes to him” – defining his senses with emotional resonance in relation to how he perceives them, as with Tammet and numbers. “We see many parts of the brain lighting up, including areas associated with taste, emotional processing and mental imagery.” I have often wondered if perhaps the only reason I can form colours / shapes in relation to sounds heard, is because of the latter’s appeal (or lack of.)
Then again, this was present before I had conscious decisions and preferences. I still don’t like the colour mustard-yellow, yet this is how the voice of one of my relations has always appeared to me. Not only that, but in accordance with their rather staccato speech patterns, it always resembles a mental lightning flash. I have no real dislike of my older sister – though we fought a fair bit as kids – this is simply how I register her voice in my mind, like a personalized ringtone; and it works on the same level for many others in my life, though not all. Some appear as blank spaces, for whatever reason, though their emotional connection to me may be great. Perhaps it’s simply an emotional-colour whiteout, due to high intensity of feeling.

Renewed studies into the syndrome, after it fell into limbo – “the 1980s cognitive revolution began to make inquiry into internal subjective states respectable again, scientists once again looked to synesthesia” – and the rise of the internet, have allowed synaesthetes, and those intrigued by its potential to work together in uncovering the truth. Certainly, more artists than ever lend their abilities to sensory-mingling (Syd Barrett being an oft-quoted favourite.)

Author Pat Duffy experienced something close to my own self-revelation as a child: “I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first write a P and 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.” Fascinating, I think, that she naturally progressed from a primary to a secondary colour, with the simple shift of one letter to another, an extension of shape.

For Duffy, the truth “was a moment when that most basic of questions that binds human beings socially, ‘do you see what I see?’ seemed to hang in a vacuum, independent of any shared context.”

If, through my writing, I manage to create an extension of the sound-colour phenomenon experienced every day, I’ll have found my own personal truth.

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