Writing the senses

Writing the senses

Some of my favourite words are ones that I like the flavour but not the meaning of: paucity, poverty, crustacean. Voiced out loud or on paper, they leave mellow zest on the backs of my teeth. 

They didn’t always taste like this.  

Most people with synaesthesia are born with it. Mine developed a few years ago in tandem with a neurological disease. The types that I have mean that I taste some words and colours, see and feel some sounds, and experience emotions as colours too. 

I think of it as a sensory language, one that means laughter can glitter in the air, rain can patter on me while I’m indoors, and I can feel a heartbeat pulse through a pillow.  

Laughter can glitter in the air, rain can patter
on me while I’m indoors

The first time this sensory cross-talk happened I was at an art gallery, absorbing the deep reds and darks of Rothko’s Seagram Murals. My brain was brewing a migraine when my mouth filled with bright, gritty metallic red. The paint made low vibrations and the noise from the installation next door translated into an oblong that sped in front of me like a shadow train. It was disorientating and strange, but didn’t feel like a hallucination. 

This sense-blending started around the time that I started writing fiction and now I wouldn’t know how to divorce them. My aesthetic and voice are threaded and spliced with it. 

In my debut novel, The Taste of Blue Light, I bundled synaesthesia up with trauma and pathologised it. I fictionalised my experience at the gallery for a pivotal scene - who wouldn’t want to document and explore something like that?

The most pronounced form of my synaesthesia is emotion-colour. I’m apricot calm as I write this. I don’t feel everything as a different shade but the things that I do sense this way remain the same, specific colours. Emergency lights blue is always frantic while navy is steady.

I often say I’d feel bleached inside if it faded now but sometimes when I’m writing, colours get tangled. Expressions involving green, for example, typically involve envy or illness. But for me, green is only ever positive – the paler the hue, the more stable the feeling. If I say a character is jaded, I mean that they’re energised not exhausted. (Thank goodness for editors.)

For me, green is only ever positive – the paler the hue, the more stable the feeling

Now that I’m accustomed to it, the effects of synaesthesia on my work are oblique, more metaphorical. With Colour Me In, my second book, which is about mental health, art and adventure, I wanted the tone to be intimate, dark and dreamy. My main challenge was to create a deep inner world for the main character without giving him – and all the other characters - the same synesthete traits as me.   

Sometimes I joke that synaesthesia is a niche superpower and it does seem to be having a cultural moment. But for all the sensory humblebragging and mythologising, being a synesthete isn’t a substitute for creative technique and practise. 

So, if something I’ve written doesn’t feel right, I go back to basics. I think about being specific but brief - I’ll take a nectarine sky over an orange-pink one with a smatter of fruit salad stained clouds. If a description seems cliché, I’ll refer to a less obvious sense – imagining the static hum that intense heat makes rather than the feel of scorching sun on skin, for example.   

Most of all, I think about intent. Whether it’s tipping cold terror down the reader’s spine or whispering to them with an ice cube under our tongue, writers need to know what senses we’re calling on and why. 

Photography: Cody Davis

Lydia Ruffles is the author of The Taste of Blue Light (Hodder, 2017) and Colour Me In (Hodder, 2018). She also writes and speaks on creativity and mental health for media, including The GuardianSunday Times STYLE, Buzzfeed, Irish Times, Wellcome Collection, BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 2, and more. Tweet her @lydiaruffles.