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How Synaesthesia Can Help Improve Your Writing

Synaesthesia is an intertwining of the senses; a neurological condition which provokes an involuntary sensory response to another sensory modality. Sight, touch, smell, sound and taste become confused; sound can evoke taste buds and a smell can stimulate streams of colours. In certain real-life cases, words can taste like rhubarb, music can sound like the splash of paint and numbers can have personalities.

Article by Carlotta E.

There are over 100 different types of synaesthesia. Most fall under grapheme-colour, where words, letters and numbers are associated, and literally infused (in their minds), with colours. Sometimes weeks and months evoke synaesthesia (visuo-spatial). Other times, sound, taste and touch can become blurred, evoking distinct colours or emotions.

Synaesthesia is not harmful. At worst, it can be distracting, overpowering and unpleasant (imagine your best friend’s name tasting metallic on your tongue). At best, it can be endlessly interesting, inspiring and extremely useful, particularly for artists, writers and, yes, mathematicians.

Tasting words

Writers know telling, rather than showing, weighs their writing down. In Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, in the midst of an anxious conversation, we get the line “The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads”. Hemingway shows us his character’s pensiveness, rather than telling us in length what, how and why. Readers learn more about this character from that one action than any amount of description can do.

Imagine the impact tasting words can have on the imaginations of your readers. Actively crossing senses can add character to your character. ‘Her voice tasted like burning apples’ has more resonance than ‘her voice was sweet’. Adopting synaesthesia (and thereby tasting your words) into your writing gives immediacy, vitality and longevity, and stops it feeling prosaic.

Activity I:

Make a list. Draw four different columns in each, write down types of foods, smells and sounds, and words in need of a descriptive dressing, like ‘eyes’, ‘laughter’ or ‘tears’. Cover up each column when you move onto the next, and don’t think about it when you write – just write. Afterwards, go across the line and see what you’ve come up with. What about ‘hands like dressing tables’?

Blind writing

Using synaesthesia also allows you to think more laterally when it comes to writer’s block. Criss-crossing your senses opens the minds of your readers as well as your own. In comparison to synaesthetes, us normal folks have a sensory blockage. Mingling sound and touch can seem bizarre and sometimes impossible, but it works.

In Sam Meekings’ poem, ‘Describing Angels to the Blind’, he describes angels as such; “Their language is a live catfish wriggling through your hands/or a tie or twitch you can’t control/their half human faces a fit of giggles at a funeral.” His descriptions are stories within stories and need no more explanation than the actions that only blind people can feel or hear. This way, it becomes universal.

Activity II:

Practice describing a song using only touch, taste and sight, as if you were explaining it to someone who was deaf. Rid yourself of the senses that are pulling you down. Are you seeing too much? Hearing too much? Feeling too much? Imagine, from now on, that all your readers are blind and deaf, and go from there.

Seeing sounds and hearing colours

Even for the 90-something per cent of us who don’t experience synaesthesia, we all know what it’s like to feel blue. Music or nostalgic photographs can make us feel blue. Cartoons can make us feel happy, and happiness is usually associated with bright colours, like yellow or orange. Synaesthetes experience an alternative universe of colours and emotions, however. Sounds trigger colours involuntarily, so imagine hearing your mum speak and feeling constantly purple. What emotion do you associate with purple? Giddiness, vivacity, greed? Grounding emotion in colour or an alternate sense will rejuvenate sticky prose.

Activity III:

If you’re ever lost for words, flick through an old photo album or the plethora of photo websites available online – Shutterstock, Flickr, Tumblr, Pinterest. Pick an image that you like (or one that you don’t), for whatever reason, and describe the scene using one sense at a time. Start with touch, move onto taste, and then smell. Are there people in the photograph? What can they hear? Describe the touch of their skin as if you, yourself, were blind.

A red howl in the dark…

… can go further than ‘a loud howl in the dark’. Synaesthesia Magazine was founded on this concept. Embracing words for all their beauty, timbre and colour – as if they were 3D objects to touch, taste, hear and smell – Synaesthesia Magazine blends art and words with a different bi-monthly theme to create a fusion of senses.

Run by two passionate editors but surviving on the contributions of talented writers and artists, Synaesthesia Magazine readily encourage a sensory exploration from their contributors. Writers and artists are sought to submit poetry, short stories, photography and illustrations that cross boundaries and fences, taste green and sometimes red, and follow the love affair between February and August.

All of that, is synaesthesia.

To find out more about Synaesthesia Magazine, visit their blog for submission details, guidelines and to read their issues. Follow them on Twitter for encouraging writing tasks: @SynaesthesiaMag or find them on Facebook.

Featured image: Annabelle Carvell, Synaesthesia Magazine©

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