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A lesson from Nabokov: how to write for the senses

 

Metaphors are one of the most powerful devices in creative writing. They help us describe things in ways that captivate the reader, inspiring them to see things in new ways. Synaesthetic writing can inspire us to write even more creative metaphors that surprise and delight.

What is synaesthesia? 

Synaesthesia takes metaphorical thinking to the next level. It’s a neurological condition that merges senses that are not normally connected. The term comes from the Greek words σύν and αἴσθησις which means ‘union of the senses’. Writers with synaesthesia, known as synaesthetes, have used their condition to their advantage. For example, being able to smell in colours makes for a fascinating description. 

Vladimir Nabokov, most well known for writing the controversial novel Lolita, was a synaesthete. He wrote explicitly about his condition in his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951). More specifically, he was a grapheme-colour synaesthete. This means he associated particular letters and numbers with colours. When asked about the initials of his own name, he said: 

“V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it’s called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colours that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish-yellowish oatmeal colour.”

In this way, synaesthesia is often romanticised as a condition that intensifies one’s experience of life. Some synaesthetes feel sorry for people who don’t have the condition. It’s often portrayed as poetic. 

Although a non-synaesthete can’t accurately mimic the condition, by reading synaesthetic works, we can open our minds to less “logical” metaphors. This can give our writing an element of surprise and break us out of the metaphors that have become old hat, or even cliché. 

What are common examples of synaesthetic phrases?

A good way to understand synaesthesia is to explore how the different senses are used in everyday speech. Here are some examples:

  • That shirt is a loud colour.
  • It’s bitterly cold outside.
  • I’m feeling blue.

How can I use synaesthesia in my writing? 

So now you understand what synaesthesia is and you’re ready to experiment. Here is an exercise you can try just to get the creative juices flowing. 

A quick synaesthesia exercise

Pick an abstract noun. Here are some examples of abstract nouns:

  • Love
  • Time
  • Beauty
  • Hate
  • Fear
  • Joy
  • Pity

Take that abstract noun and try to describe it using all the senses. Let’s take love as our example. Your exercise will be completing these sentences:

Love looks like…

Love smells like…

Love feels like…

Love sounds like…

Love tastes like…

Let go of any hesitancy and give it a try. At this stage, no sentence is too ridiculous – and, after all, we’re trying to break out of the metaphors we would normally use.