On writing

Synesthesia and the creative process

Molly Prentiss, author of Tuesday Nights in 1980, examines the distance between perception and reality, and whether a synesthetic brain is inherently creative

Very occasionally, I can enter a specific mental state where I do not feel myself thinking at all, but only writing. I credit this state for most work I’ve done that I consider good. When I am in it, words whistle out of my fingertips, sentences sail onto the screen - it is as if the writing was already fully formed, as if I were simply seeing or feeling something and describing it: that easy. Obscure and sometimes seemingly absurd connections come freely and unexpectedly, surprising even me. It is as if, in these moments, the barrier between my mind and the page is lifted, the distance between me and my ideas shortened. It is inside these moments that the writing dances and sings.

But these sprees are fleeting. They abandon me, leave me alone with glaring blank screens and unfinished sentences. The distance between me and the work widens and sprawls again, until I am inhabiting a different island than my art, and between us is a large black sea.

But what would it be like if the metaphor I was searching for was not a metaphor at all, but my reality? What if I could simply write down what was happening in my body, or in front of my eyes, and that would be that? I’ve recently been reading and writing about a condition that might, if I had it, allow me to do exactly that: synesthesia.
 


It is as if, in these moments, the barrier between my mind and the page is lifted, the distance between me and my ideas shortened. It is inside these moments that the writing dances and sings.
 

Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the cognitive pathways that relate to one’s senses - sight, smell, touch, sound, etc. - are connected or swapped, and I’m mildly obsessed with it. A synesthete might see the colour red when he hears the sound of bells, for example. Or smell roasted peanuts when he reads the word dog. Many synesthetes describe its visual manifestation as a sort of screen in their minds eye, the colours or images floating atop whatever is in their sightline - a scrim of sensation between them and the rest of the world.

So here is my question: Is the very nature of the condition - the connections between unlikely things - the essence of creative thought? And as such, is a synesthetic brain naturally better equipped to create - like a music prodigy, in whom notes and songs seem to be engrained at birth? Which leads me to the most pressing of the questions: If a synesthete creates a work of art based directly on the associations in his or her brain, does that mean that the synesthetic mind is a work of art in itself?
 

Armory Show, 1913, featuring work by Constantin Brancusi

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Richard Cytowick and David Eagleman, co-authors of Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia, write: '…synesthetes have more abundant connections among conceptual maps and accordingly are more facile at linking superficially unrelated concepts and seeing deep similarities in seemingly unrelated realms.'
 


Whereas I can sit for hours searching for the perfect way to describe the colour of a certain dusky sky, a synesthete might simply explain the things he experienced while looking at that sky: the taste of papaya, maybe, or a heat in his hands.
 

'All art is juxtaposition,' wrote British poet and academic Robin Skelkin. 'Placing images beside each other in such a way as to suggest previously unnoticed or unimagined relationships.' Juxtaposition is the natural work of the synesthetic mind; metaphor is a synesthete’s mental currency. Whereas I can sit for hours searching for the perfect way to describe the colour of a certain dusky sky, a synesthete might simply explain the things he experienced while looking at that sky: the taste of papaya, maybe, or a heat in his hands. This description, for him, is not a metaphor but a reality. Whereas my metaphor might be more direct - a sky that was as purple as a bruise, say - it would also be, by definition, less true. My metaphor is a fabrication, a fiction. I did not feel my skin bruising as I searched the sky.

 

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Apparently, though, we are all a little bit synesthetic. Cytowick, in a 2009 interview, stated: '…cross-talk among the senses is the rule rather than the exception - we are all inward synesthetes who are outwardly unaware of sensory couplings happening all the time.' He cites dancing as an example: our bodies moving naturally to rhythms produced by sound. In other words, we may not all see fireworks behind our eyelids when we hear orchestra music, but our brains are still cross-pollinating in ways we don’t even notice or acknowledge, all the time.

In extrapolation, we are all natural metaphor makers and understanders. Cytowick cites our collective association of dark colours with lower sounds, for example, and deeper smells. Light colours with higher sounds and brighter, fresher smells. When we describe wine, we might very well sound synesthetic. It’s deep and round, we might say about a lush red. Or for a white: it tastes like a day at the park. It’s bright. It skips across the tongue.

 

A Keith Haring mural in Barcelona

Modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi said: 'To see far is one thing: going there is another.' What exists in the space between seeing and going? What dark mess lies there that makes it so difficult to traverse? It is within this space that anything can happen, where truth can emerge, where messes are made. The unexpected is scary; not everyone allows for it.

Perhaps what separates an artist out from the rest is not simply an innate ability or built-in way of seeing. Perhaps it is also her willingness to travel through this bog of truth, and to come out the other side with the hinge that connects vision and reality. She might have to get miserable for a moment, in the aching heat of her own sensations. She might have to wallow in Monday’s blue, or she may have to invent a colour she’s never seen. Most importantly, she’ll have to hop into the messy ship of her own mind, trust it to get her where she wants to go, or even where she doesn’t.
 

A version of this article originally appeared in Electric Literature magazine.

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