Story and Synesthesia

I’ve talked about character descriptions before.

I also did a recent guest post about writing what you can imagine.

I was thinking today about Synesthesia, which is where some people associate sensations such as color or mood or tone with factors such as numbers, days of the week, months of the year, and so on.

I’ve always been good with numbers, and I have favorites among them – some that simply “look” and “feel” different than others. And I see music in patterns and often think of stories and pacing as patterns I can visualize. By “good with numbers,” I mean that when I was a bank teller back in college, I could do an 8-hour shift and remember the exact dollar amount of checks, currency, and coins for each of the hundred or so transactions for that day. I also had a few dozen customers’ account numbers memorized so when they came up I already had their account up. And I can glance at Algebra and discern what’s going on and how to solve a given problem – but I also have always made leaps where I skip a lot of steps and simply intuit where to go for the answer. I find math useful but not really interesting, though.

I’m not so good with faces, and to a lesser extend with names. They have a name for that as well, it turns out.

In my case, I can talk with someone new for hours, and by the next day (and often only an hour or so later) I cannot visualize their face. Nor do I know hair color or even bald or not, glasses or not, and so on. I get gender right, though, which is helpful 🙂

After I come to know someone, I can visualize them only as a picture – a mental snapshot placed in context. I’d make a terrible witness, in other words.

Names are kind of hit-and-miss. I have a friend who I originally met because we lived in the same apartment complex. She’s very extroverted and when she’d be walking her small dog, she’d wave and say hi, and a couple times we chatted. Her dog’s name was Cleo – short for Cleopatra.

One day a week or so after being introduced to her – and to her dog Cleo – I ran into her and Cleo at the mailboxes. We started talking, and I even leaned down and said, “Hi Cleo” to her dog, who was always quite happy to be around more people.

Suddenly, in the midst of our conversation, she (not the dog) interrupted and said very matter-of-factly, “You don’t remember my name.”

“Of course I do.” (note to younger self – a change of subject sometimes works better than trying to bluff)

“Then what is it?”

“Oh, well. Er, um…”

“It’s Ilene,” and here she demonstrated by leaning back, “As in, ‘I lean against the wall.'”

We became good friends, and she demonstrated a great ability to forgive me for remembering the dog’s name – but not hers.

Writing is about associating.

Words are just a pattern on a page in their rawest form. But they become something more when we order and arrange them, and particularly when we breathe life into them, imbuing them with associations that a reader can see.

A good character description invites a reader to engage in a kind of synesthesia, drawing from their own imagination to fill in the simple sketch they’re given. With only a few cues a reader develops an understanding for a character, a feel for a story, an anticipation from the flow and pacing they’re shown.

A limp and lifeless character or story does neither writer nor reader much good. Granted, no two readers will ever share the same experience from a story, or visualize and understand a character in the same way. But a writer’s job is to trigger the reader’s imagination – and not just spell everything out on the pages.

I’ve written before about writing with feeling, invoking mood through the story and characters. I think when it’s done right, created with passion, it finds an echo in some readers’ minds and triggers a cascade of associations as they discover the story, get to know characters, and explore the world the writer had envisioned for them.

This paragraph from Glowstar is one where I wanted to convey serenity:

Tall-stemmed grasses swayed in the wind, adorned with cotton ball puffs of frozen snow. She reached down to cup her palm around one, enticing it to release its trapped moisture like tears falling onto her skin. A few wispy clouds trailed across a sky patterned in rich hues of orange that stretched out to meet the deeper blue over the Hudson River. She walked to the railing to stare out at the water, where its slow movement seemed as enticing as a waltz. She closed her eyes, remembering the way the river had caressed her with cold fingers, drawing her down into its dark embrace where time fell away along with all her concerns.

And here is heartbreak:

She was sitting at one end of a bench in the Park, aware of the long and empty space beside her, and the way the cold seeped through her clothes. Her hair hung low around her face, concealing her thoughts from any who passed nearby. Each soft footstep on the path that wound its way past her like a meandering stream seemed a final solemn note in this place where her solitude began and ended. She wiped at her eyes, staring at fresh droplets that had fallen like lonely raindrops to the ground below.

Or isolation:

Her hand lay alone like an abandoned starfish, its white shape bound to the darkness of her pants.

Or attraction:

He became aware of her as her shadow fell across him. He looked up and smiled, a gentle turn of lips between cheeks with a hint of blush showing through the cold. A scattering of sandy hair snuck out from beneath a tasseled cap, and his brown eyes blinked against a gust of wind that rippled the paper held securely in hands turned almost white by winter’s touch. She could see a pair of gloves peeking out from a pocket, although they had evidently not been worn for some time. He seemed very ordinary, and she wondered why that was, since humans rarely ever drew her notice.

Musicians try to make their songs transcend whatever the words or music are if they were to stand alone without one another. When they blend successfully, people who hear it gain insights and form remembrances, and feel something beyond whatever was laid out as notes and words.

All forms of art try to do this – with varying degrees of success coupled with the endless variety of audience.

It’s a form of communication – and a rather magical one in the way a vision can be multiplied and transformed into so many individual visualizations unique to each person who witnesses or experiences the music, art, or writing.

Richard Bach wrote in the preface to The Bridge Across Forever his thoughts:

“As readers see behind writers’ masks, you’ll see what drove me to put these words on paper. But sometimes, when the light’s just so, writers can see behind readers’ masks, as well.”

11 thoughts on “Story and Synesthesia

  1. “But a writer’s job is to trigger the reader’s imagination – and not just spell everything out on the pages.”

    This is so true. It’s about creating an experience, not just telling a story.

  2. I’ve always found Synesthesia intriguing. I’ve only ever had something like this, when tired as a child listening to orchestral music originating from road noise as I was driven home late – but I don’t think this qualifies as it’s still the same type of stimulus, and doesn’t cross over from one to another another. Faces I do fairly well, but I’m terrible with names – I think being you sounds really interesting. 🙂

    I’ve read about it affecting art too, and music, so the fact that it influences your writing makes sense. One question though, do you ever catch yourself thinking you can’t use a particular metaphor or simile because others might not be able to share your experiences, and so follow the associations you make?

    Thanks for an interesting post. 🙂

  3. Nicely done Matthew,
    Finding that magical element for the reader to hook onto is the key for any writer. I’m like you, I don’t remember people so well until I’ve known them a while, but thier animals, well that is another thing altogether.

    Likewise I have a memory for completely useless pieces of information, the more useless the better. Such as the Salem Witch Trials. For example I know that two dogs were killed and there was an involvement of a third. What did it do?

    Well, one family thought their daughter was under a curse, so they followed advice, make a cake (that they’d gotten thier daughter to urinate in. (I kid you not.) Then fed it to the dog. It was meant to give the witch that had caused the curse, abdominal cramps and pain.

    See, completely useless but its silly things like that I remember.

    • Maybe not silly, though. I bet those little things add considerable flavor when given life within a new story. Part of the strength in Stephen King’s storytelling is the way he brings in little anecdotal bits of life that seem ordinary – and making them memorable – just as these pieces were made memorable for you.

  4. Oh, man, I am so not good with numbers…or names…lol.

    I tend to make decisions very early on when I’m listening, reading or being introduced whether or not this is something or someone of importance to me…if not then I discard almost immediately…which means that sometimes I judge to hastily and end up regretting it. lol

    Great post!

  5. Really great post and I agree, “Granted, no two readers will ever share the same experience from a story, or visualize and understand a character in the same way. But a writer’s job is to trigger the reader’s imagination – and not just spell everything out on the pages.” It all comes down to showing, not telling, and leaving enough space for a reader to read between the lines as well. Get the balance right and the story really takes off 🙂

    Oh and people always remember dogs names before their owners hehe I don’t know why but it always seems to happen that way. Which can get embarrassing at the dog park here when I can call every dog by name but only half of their owners lol!

    I have to say though, if my bank teller had my account number memorised, I’d change banks!

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