Inhabiting Color: Writing from Synesthesia
by Katharine Ogle, West Seattle High School
Eggshell, paper doll, cloud cover, oyster, icicle, steam, fine china, powdered nose, deep in thought, plaster of paris, macaroon, moonlight–you may be familiar with these, all pet-names for white, if you’ve ever considered sprucing up the paint job in a personal space. When consulting the compendium of the 151 shades of white that Benjamin Moore offers, it occurred to me what a multi-sensory experience color offers–there I was in a hardware store, feeling hungry while thumbing the Bavarian cream swatch.
Next (natural instinct of a poet / teaching artist) was to grab as many color chips as I could without looking too suspicious and bring them home to devise a lesson plan to have my students at West Seattle High School experiment evoking synesthesia in their writing.
One of the primary skills of poetry writing is the ability to render a sensory experience. The images, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, temperatures of a situation or experience must be conjured from words on the page. A fun way to get students thinking about how to engage the five senses in their writing is to have them explore the everything-but-visual with something like color, which so strongly appeals to the eyes.
So I bring in my color swatches–my tomato tango, full bloom, parakeet, honeycomb, inland breeze, drizzle, brick, electricity, after hours, seaworthy, julep, radish, fever–and deal each student a card. We close our eyes and paint the insides of our brains these colors and sit inside our heads a while. I ask the students questions about the shape of the room, whether it has windows or doors or many doors, what it smells like, what time of year and day it is, if there is music and what kind. Could you fall asleep here? Would you invite someone to join you here?
After meditating on the color a while, the students open their eyes and write down what they can remember about inhabiting their color as a physical space:
“Waffles, warm, soft, smells like a kitchen. Quiet rain and I’m under a blanket” -H, pd. 3“I heard a whale in the distance I felt a smooth surface The room is big with no windows and one door It’s cold The roof is floating” -B, pd. 6 “rock music / heavy metal tastes like chicken a little smelled fresh smooth and glossy like a fashion magazine room temperature had color stuck in my mind, like sleep empty and large” -A, pd. 6
“I remember everything going turquoise, the same color as my card, there were windows and I was in a really big house. The taste on my tongue was bitterness and everything smelled lovely like perfume. I felt and touched everything around me. It was really scary because I have been there for two months.” -K, pd. 2
We talk about synesthesia for a while, a fascinating condition some people experience where they blend two or more senses, often perceiving and associating a particular color with numbers, words, and peoples’ names. One of my favorite anecdotes to share comes from teacher Stephanie Rosen from WSHS, who teaches Psychology in addition to Language Arts and likes to tell the students about a young man who had to break up with his girlfriend because her name brought the taste of undercooked eggs to his mouth.
Next we talk about really tapping in to our own synesthetic capabilities, even if we do not have the actual condition. Or just being hyper-sensory as a way to invigorate descriptions. We name animals with super-human senses like the buzzard, who can see rodents on the ground from 15,000 feet, or the cricket who talks and speaks with its legs. What it might be like to have the sensory receptors of an octopus at the end of long tentacles–how we might reach our long arms down the stairs and around the corner to the kitchen to see and smell what’s for breakfast without leaving the comfort of our warm Sunday beds.
Each student spends the rest of the time in class crafting a short piece about their color, using their notes from the color meditation exercise and their freshly tapped hyper-sensitivity. They are prompted to begin by imagining they are to explain the color to someone who cannot see, who has never been able to see and therefore has no reference of the visual world. They must find a way to communicate what the color is like by describing its smell, texture, gravity, and size.This color is like a quiet pulse with the echo of air -J, pd. 6 This color smells like many herbs and belongs in the woods, reminds me of birds chirping and classical music. This color tastes sweet, but not too sweet. Think of a large room with a big bed, a big door, and a big window. -M, pd. 6 Smell Green Think of a welcoming feeling, very mellow and kind of warm. Feel the felt lining the walls of an empty room. Think of a slight sound with a steady hum, a violin with a small bassline. -N, pd. 3 Red My color is the sunset of the mind, the color is soothing down a mood. The color smells like a pastry coming out of the oven. Red is light as an atom but rough as a rock, loud as a siren but sweet. -C, pd. 5
Blue feels like you are all alone. You do not feel lonely but you are all alone. It feels a big chilly and it tastes bitter and sweet. It smells like when you walk on a beach and the gentle breeze of salt is blowing on you. You can feel your feet sinking into the sand and suddenly there is not a sound in the world. -T, pd. 2
I feel scales when I think of green. Scales that give in when force is applied to the walls. The sound I hear is a filthy bass guitar riff. This green tastes like chocolate and I really like chocolate. How about a huge room, like an entrance hall of a giant Roman church and all greened out, no windows but emanating light. -E, pd. 6