Writing in Syn
By E. F. Tobin
E. F. Tobin
I haven't misspelled "sin" in the title; "syn"
is short for synesthesia -- have you ever heard of it? The word
comes from the Greek "syn" (together) + "aisthesis" (perception), and means
perceiving things with more than one sense (1). For example, I perceive the
letter "B" as dark silver. Synesthesia is a neurological condition but not
a disease; unusual but not abnormal. And it can be a tremendous help when
writing,,whether you have it or not.
Almost Everyone is a Synesthete
Though research is not that widespread,
theories abound about how synesthesia (or "syn") develops and why it becomes
more intense in some people than in others. The theory that makes the most
sense to me is the one that says that everyone is synesthetic from birth,
with all the different sensory neurons "intermingled" in the brain (2). This
theory posits that infants perceive everything at once, and as they learn,
neurons gradually specialize and the senses start to separate from one
another. But in some people they seem to separate less than in other
people. Why? That's the part no one seems to know.
But it stands to reason that if we all
start out synesthetic, some vestiges of it probably remain in many of us.
And as writers, we're even more tuned into synesthetic responses and
phrasing than most people. Have you ever seen a character's voice described
in terms of a texture -- thick, gravelly, watery, etc.? Or a taste --
syrupy, bitter, salty? Have you ever described a voice using any of those
adjectives yourself, in your own writing?
Chances are you have, somewhere. And
chances are you've identified with those kinds of phrases and known exactly
what they meant just from your own life experience. Those are examples of
sound-to-touch and sound-to-taste synesthesia. Yep, I bet you're a
Whether you're thinking "wow, am I really?"
or "boy, I don't know about this," I encourage you to visit Mixed Signals
(3). There are scores of different types of syn (see the "List of
Conceivable Types" at http://www.mixsig.net/about/list.php), and MixSig is
an excellent synesthesia resource that can help you determine whether -- and
to what degree -- you have certain types. You may have more than you
think. I did.
How to Use Synesthesia in Your Writing
The key to using syn effectively as a
writer is remembering that it is uniquely yours -- and that it is a tool.
More often than not, it illuminates things your subconscious has been
For instance, in one of my short stories,
my main character and his sister had just found two safety-deposit box keys
taped to a 2 x 4 stud in a wall they were tearing out. The only verb I
could find that seemed to accurately convey all parts of the look they
exchanged was "raspberried." Obviously you won't find this one as a verb
in Webster's latest tome. But to me, the flavor of raspberry is just so
quick and fleeting, with such a hint of "did you see that?" that I couldn't
help myself. But who ever heard of a look raspberrying between two people?
I tried a bunch of different wordings, each seeming more awkward, messy, and
just-not-right than the last. In the end it won out, and I wrote the
sentence as "A look raspberried between them." That gave me the courage to
let other syn reactions shine through in that first draft, too -- reactions
I was used to censoring before they ever hit the page -- and an interesting
food theme gradually appeared, one I likely wouldn't have known was there if
I'd censored my word choices as usual.
Most of those syn-generated word choices
did not survive revisions, simply for clarity's sake for the poor reader
(see below). But the food theme added another layer, another dimension to
the story -- an unexpected one!
We've all seen the advice to "give yourself
permission to write badly," especially in a first draft. You can also give
yourself permission to write synesthetically. You may be surprised at some
of the words that come to you from syn responses, and over time you might
learn that some things you might otherwise chalk up to "bad writing" are
Don't Go Nuts With It, Though
I gave my "raspberried" story to my writing
buddies for feedback without saying a thing about synesthesia. I wanted to
see how my word choices held up by their own merits. As it turned out, not
very well. I got a lot of flak for those word choices. As mightily as it
stung, though, I was glad for the feedback.
Why didn't most of my syn word choices
work? They weren't adequately explained in context. I was experimenting
with voice, and while things like "dark chocolate nostalgia" and "as oakily
as he could" sounded fine to me, they just confused my writing buddies.
(One said it sounded like I'd been talking to Ned Flanders -- "oakily
dokely!") They were left understanding the plot -- mostly -- but not
feeling satisfied with the story as a whole.
But the "raspberried" phrase went over
pretty well, because I'd put it in context. My characters had just made a
strange discovery, and I'd established that their relationship was laden
with in-jokes and private words. That foundation, along with the overall
feel of the story as a whole, drew a clear enough picture that the unusual
word didn't necessarily yank readers out of the story, scratching their
No matter how well woven-in they are, too
many syn-response word choices can still clutter up your story and make it
confusing and meaningless to anyone who isn't you. If you're writing solely
for yourself, that's one thing, but if you hope to touch others' hearts and
minds with your words, it's another. Use syn responses as the tools they
are, to improve and deepen your writing -- in subtle ways.
Okay -- But What If I Don't Have
Synesthesia at All?
Then fake it! I'm serious, fake it. Make
up a syn-sounding reaction off the top of your head and include it in your
story. Make up lots of them. Remember, even made-up responses have to come
from somewhere, and that somewhere is your own subconscious. It'll still be
you showing up in your words, still you uncovering cool,
unexpected themes and layers you didn't realize were there, didn't even know
to look for.
Try writing your next story in syn. It
offers so many benefits with little, if any, risk, and it's tons of fun!
Then, when you're done, you can see if the story as a whole elicits a syn
response of its own. (Like this article. I had planned it to be vanilla
caramel, but it turned out to be one of the yellowest things I've written in
a long time.) You never know what might give you your next great idea.