Writing Synesthesia


 Kenneth Weene


IMG_0617Writers love to write about writing, but how often do we just restate and rehash old ideas? Lord save me from another “show don’t tell,” “avoid the passive voice,” or “words writers tend to confuse” article. I don’t want to sound stuck-up, but I do want to sound original.

“Having set the bar, how do I surpass it?” That was the question I kept asking myself once I had offered to write a post for Brian. Something new. Something new.

Then answer, not from my head but as so often happens to us writers from the real world—you know that place we all try to avoid because we prefer to dwell in the one we create. In this instance the real world was our local art museum and its annual floral event.

Each year the Phoenix (Arizona) Art Museum invites florists to create arrangements based in some way on any work of art in the museum that the florist fancies. Now for many of the participants this doesn’t elicit much creativity; they just mimic the painting trying to find flowers of the same color and then arranging them to copy the composition of the painting. Blah!

Luckily, there are always a few who go beyond the obvious. They are out to capture the meaning and feeling of the artwork using their own medium. Suddenly, the museum patron is treated to a new way of experiencing that painting or sculpture. Emotions soar and thoughts reel. Senses become aroused. The florist has created a floral equivalence of synesthesia.

Just to make sure you know the word, a definition: “Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” Sounds clinical and unhealthy doesn’t it?

But perhaps we should rethink that reaction. Perhaps we should make use of this notion to improve our writing.

Consider a woman wearing a pink dress. She is your character and you have dressed her according to your story—pink it is. Of course, you can go with shades of pink or even comparisons to things that are pink. So we have warm pink or perhaps cherry blossom pink. Does that really meet your standards of creative description? Not mine.

Here is where we move to the wonderful idea of writing synesthesia. A couple of possibilities that spring to my mind: “A dress pink with the sound of cicadias.” “Her dress was the scent of fresh lemonade, pink with expectation of sweetness.”

From whence do these leaps across sensory boundaries come? That I cannot say because they are my immediate reactions to the pink dress I created in my mind. Perhaps if I were to do a long word association chain they would make psychological sense, but does that matter?

Obviously, the next question has to be which of these two synesthetic choices is the better. The answer to that question has to lie in the plot and in the character you have created. Is she going to devour, destroy, or threaten? Then clearly the cicadia are the better choice. Is she going to restore and support? Go with the lemonade. Either way, the trick is going with the cross-sensory experience.

My challenge to you (for should we not always challenge our fellow writers) is to try at least one synesthetic description for yourself. Meanwhile, I shall contemplate the tartness of my fingers clacking away on this keyboard that smells so much of home.


For more about Kenneth Weene, Visit his web site:  http://www.kennethweene.com/

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