I use words. That’s what I do. Mostly I write, but I also like to talk. I love words…the feel of them in my mouth, the sound of them in my head, the pleasure of gliding my eyes over a word buffet laid out in front of me and, from all the little tubs and platters and chafing dishes, carefully laying a selection on my plate. The use of “proposition” in “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” gives me joy. Because it had to be that word, and none other. Some people create with paint or clay or song or lots of bubbling pots on the stove. I use words.
Sometimes, however, words leave me. The more I call, the more I search behind the couch and under the bed, the more I fret and start tacking up missing posters around the neighborhood, the more words stubbornly refuse to come. That’s when I know I need to walk away from words for awhile and do something else. And just when they feel like they are being ignored, words come sauntering back home. Maybe words are cats.
I distance myself from words in a number of ways. I might spend a week just listening to music, or taking long hikes, or meandering through museums, or baking lots and lots of cookies. But what I usually do is think about stuff. All kinds of stuff. Sometimes I choose a theme to mull over for a few days…reading and listening to interviews and making connections. Much like what Elizabeth Gilbert did about genious, but less eloquently. But sometimes the theme plops down in my lap, product of serendipity and chance and, perhaps, a pinch of destiny.
That’s what happened to me this last week. It has been an intense period of lots of commercial writing, which is great for paying the bills but not so great for feeding the muse. Words checked out on me a couple of weeks ago, and after a few days of whistling for them on the back porch I realized that I needed to walk away.
So, I thought about color.
I didn’t choose it…it chose me, in the guise of a couple of really cool—and slightly spookily related—sources that I found so fascinating that I am going through the trouble of sharing them here.
It all started with this engaging article about synaesthetes, which I found through Jodi Ettenberg’s brainy link-o-rific newsletter. Synaesthetes are wired neurologically to have multiplex senses, so they can “hear” colors or “see” numbers as a color. Perhaps the most famous of synaesthetes was Nabokov, whom I have always loved because he was such a master wordsmith (despite speaking English as a second language), a talent probably linked to his multi-sensory perceptions. The article was absolutely compelling and I’m considering purchasing an iPhone primarily to download the Sonified app mentioned.
So, I was thinking about this word/number/color alternate reality mash-up when my friend Marco (endless font of nifty links and fascinating factoids) randomly sent me the website of Cuban photographer Abelardo Morell. His Camera Obscura collection stopped me in my tracks; for a geek like me, these shots are utterly fascinating technically, but the poignant juxtapositions between the intimate rooms cast with the watercolor-tinted upside-down image of the outside world…surreal, moving, and with an eye that took what could have stopped as a highschool physics project into the realm of art.
And just when I was putting these two elements together, a third nugget of color-related coolness came my way through the one of my favorite podcasts, Radio Lab. A little bit of science, a little bit of history, a little bit of literature…all wrapped up in one gripping hour of color discussion. How does a rainbow look to a dog, or a butterfly, or (the color-seeing rockstar, as it turns out) the mantis shrimp? Were the ancients colorblind? Is there an ethical quandry about obtaining a color from the Cambodian killing fields? Lots of stuff to ponder, lots of neurons making their new paths.
The end result? Some cocktail chatter fodder, some distraction, and the return of words. I got up this morning and here they were, mewing at the door, curling around my ankles, tumbling around in my mind and waiting for me to put them in order.
Color me unblocked.