What color is a crash of thunder? What does a seascape taste like? For that matter, what does green smell like?
Those questions probably make as much sense as asking the sum of two and two and expecting for an answer a bushel of apples. But those who experience synesthesia might perceive the blare of a trumpet as the color orange or recognize a particular word that tastes like waffles. It’s a phenomenon in which the senses blend or cross over. For many so-called synesthetes, numbers and letters are perceived as inherently colored.
While synesthesia offers a fascinating subject for research into brain function, it’s also a useful device in writing vivid imagery that evokes all the senses. I enjoyed the opportunity to explore synesthesia and other techniques for immersive descriptions in a recent Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers workshop in Grand Junction.
Anne Marie, a former editor for a small press who reads queries for a literary agent, led the presentation. Anne started with an overview of the research into the senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. It was interesting to realize our perceptions are a result of the ways our brains interpret nerve impulses.
What followed at the workshop was even more interesting. Participants went through a series of five exercises in which we listened to recorded sounds, looked at photographs, touched objects inside a box, tasted various foods and smelled different spices. We filled in a worksheet in first writing down words to describe what we heard, saw, touched, tasted and smelled. We then described our experiences in terms of different senses.
A photograph of an abandoned shack in snow brought to mind the rough texture of the wood and sound of wind whistling through the boards. A sample of dark chocolate evoked a sensation of smoothness. The smell of spices resurrected pleasant memories of the taste of stuffing and pumpkin pie served at Thanksgiving gatherings. The final step in the process was to devise metaphors or similies for the descriptions.
There’s a well-worn admonition that writers should show, not tell. A quote attributed to the Russian novelist Anton Chekhov states: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Why, then, just tell readers about a mountain meadow? Instead, let them linger to smell the wildflowers, listen to the creek gurgle and feel the wet grass beneath their bare feet? Now, combine those perceptions. Perhaps the fragrances of those flowers blend in an intricate fugue. Perhaps the sound of moving water evokes the image of a slow-moving parade of blues and greens.
In my work in progress, I strive to immerse readers in the rugged and scenic landscape of northwest Colorado. It’s a setting where long flags of loose snow flutter from mountain peaks and sparkle in the morning sun. It’s a place where dry leaves clinging to otherwise bare branches rattle in the breeze while the nearby river babbles on, oblivious to the raucous interruption of a crow. It’s a sometimes foreboding location as well where thunderclouds spill over the western horizon and a chill wind carries with it the scent of rain and sagebrush.
Do you feel at least a bit like you’re there? I hope so. I also hope you’ll soon enjoy the opportunity to experience even more of the remarkable setting and what happens there.
In the meantime, I’d enjoy the opportunity to read some of your descriptions blending the senses. What color are they? What do they taste like? What do they smell like?