A Northwest Based Literary Journal

The Beautiful Art of Synesthesia, by John Brantingham

Imagine two shapes drawn on paper.

One is sharp, made of spikes coming out of a central core, and none of those spikes are the same length as any of the others, so there is no uniformity of shape.

The other is a smooth amoeba shape. This one has no rough edges.

One of these shapes is named Kiki and the other is Bobo. Can you identify which is which?

Ninety-five percent of the population will identify Kiki as being the name of the spiked shape and Bobo as being the name of the other shape. To them, this name assignment will be obvious.

Next, think about words of contempt. You don’t have to say them aloud, and in fact I hope you never do. These are words of racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and sexism. Think about how they feel in your mouth and throat when they’re said. Think about how the key sounds of those words live at the top and back of your throat.

Now, think about how the words “love” and “lust” engage your mouth and throat. These you can speak out loud if you like. Exaggerate them when you say them. Notice how much of your body “love” engages. With that long “o” sound it dips all the way to the bottom of your throat while “lust” stays at the front of your mouth: your teeth, tip of your tongue, and lips.

I started out life as a fiction writer, but I began also to write poetry in my late twenties. When I did so, I changed the way that I revised work because I came to understand the power of synesthesia, and I would argue that the study of poetry is essential to the skills of anyone who writes.

What I came to understand was that words have a power that I never knew of before. They do not simply reflect emotions. They create emotions.

Many people have had the experience of walking into a room where a lot of people were laughing, and they felt like laughing themselves. The reason for this is survival. Laughter is a signal to the group that everything is all right. That’s why people think The Three Stooges is funny. People fall down but no one is hurt, and the program would be a lot different if Moe’s finger pokes gouged out eyes or if Curly bled out. We laugh to let the rest of the group know we are all okay, and laughter is often uncontrollable because it is instinctual. If you have ever felt like laughing at a funeral, your body was trying to find comfort in a moment of emotional horror.

Most people will identify Kiki and Bobo because we have a brain anomaly that mixes different senses, in this case touch and sound. “Kiki” is a sharp sound. Sharpness of sound makes no sense unless you understand synesthesia. Neither does roundness. Sharpness and roundness are touch sensations, but because of this anomaly, we can assign those characteristics to words as well.

It takes contempt to kill or subjugate large groups of people, which is why governments and people in power promote hate speech. Saying these words again and again makes us feel contempt. Most people think that we say these words to express an emotion, but it actually works both ways. We are biologically predetermined to feel disgust when we say them, so saying them over and over will makes us more willing to kill.

Love is a much more involved emotion than lust, and saying that you love something creates a much richer reaction than saying that you have lust for it.

The question for writers of course is how any of this matters in our writing. Most writers know that part of the act of revision should include reading work out loud. However, it is important to keep conscious goals as you are reading your work. What is the purpose of this paragraph? How does this make me feel? How will it affect my reader on a biological level? After all, when you use words of contempt, your readers are going to begin to feel that emotion as well.

The point then is to read sections of your work out loud carefully. If done correctly, this should be the most cathartic part of the revision process. Most importantly, one needs to focus on the emotional reaction he or she is having while revising. I generally go beyond simply reading my fiction through aloud. I read each sentence one by one in reverse order, paying attention to how that sentence is affecting me.

After all each sentence matters, as does each word, as does each sound.


John Brantingham is an English professor at Mt. San Antonio College, the writer-in-residence at the dA Center for Cultural Arts, and the president of the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival. His books include The Green of Sunset and Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods. His story, “The California Water War,” appeared in TLR issue 3.


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Categorised in: Fiction, Poetry

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