Some people have synesthetic experiences during seizures or on psychedelic drugs. Some say it’s more prevalent in artistic people. It’s a condition that tends to run in families so it’s believed that there’s a genetic basis. Scientists believe that all babies are synesthetes but as they grow and go through synaptic pruning, the senses fully differentiate in normal development. When I was young, I had a set of colored magnetic letters that loosely correlated with my letter-color perceptions.
Last year, a site called “I Write Like” was posted all over Facebook. The first time I tried it, I was told that my writing style resembles that of Vladimir Nabokov and I was floored by the coincidence. Though I’ve never read any of his work, I learned about his synesthesia while reading Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Nabokov described himself as a painterly writer and it was the first time I heard of any writer whose synesthesia informed their work. It was a revelation that at least one other person might have had a similar inner world.
Famous Russian pianist and composer Alexander Scriabin faked synesthesia and created a contrived color-based musical system based on the New Age teachings of Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, which combined science and esoteric beliefs. The founders of the Theosophical Society timed its inception to intricate calculations of astrological aspects. Numerology was considered sacred and perhaps a musical-number-color system supposedly based on a condition linked with psychedelic shamanic journeys and artistic creations imparted an ethereal quality, icing on the metaphysical cake.
It’s hard to describe the synesthetic experience to someone who doesn’t have it. One woman I used to work with would always ask me what it meant that, for example, 6 was a light blue. What was the underlying, psychic meaning of it? What did the color tell me about the intrinsic feel of the number 6? “It doesn’t tell me anything, it’s just light blue,” I would answer and she would get mad, as if I was ignoring special access to some universal truth.
I am a painterly writer, especially when writing longhand. Each letter is like a specific colored pencil. Colors inform word and phrasing and permeate through all aspects of what I put on the page. In fiction, I pick character names that are aesthetically pleasing in color and sometimes this bleeds over (unconsciously) into real life. A disproportionate amount of my characters, as well as boyfriends and crushes, have had names that start with A or J (red and green, respectively) and that are artistically agreeable in color.
For today’s writing sample, here’s another sample from the lyric essay “On Synesthesia.” For the first excerpt (the beginning of the essay) click here.
Don’t forget, you can check out other Friday writing samples here. And there’s always the Published and Older Works sections to explore as well.