TUESDAY IS ICE BLUE: the secrets of synaesthesia

TUESDAY IS ICE BLUE: the secrets of synaesthesia

Tuesday is long, thin and a smooth ice blue. My sister is acid yellow and spiked all over. And the number nine is scarlet velvet, just like Ravel’s Bolero. Now before, you set the social media police on me (or start searching for photos of my family under ‘weird and wonderful diseases’), I should probably let you into a secret: I have synaesthesia.

The dictionary defines synaesthesia as “the production of an impression relating to one sense by the stimulation of another sense”. But that doesn’t come anywhere near describing what’s really happening. Synaesthesia is an incessant eruption of the senses; in my head, everything links to everything else. Which means that whether we’re taking about facts, figures or philosophy, a whole host of colours, shapes, movements, placements, sounds and connections are being sparked. Mention something as simple as ‘cat’ and you’ve ignited a mental explosion akin to the Fourth of July. (A date which appears to either side of my eyes in spikey, deep royal blue, with a discordant brass and percussion overlay!)

Why I’m a synaesthete, I don’t know, but I do suspect it runs in the family. And I’m fairly certain that most people who share my condition have no idea it’s not commonplace. I discovered synaesthesia during a psychology class: the professor talking at length on the subject while I skulked in my seat, throwing confused glances at my fellow students. Surely, I thought, everyone does this?

A quick conversation with the teacher – and a couple of tests later – it was confirmed: I was most definitely a synaesthete. I went home and told my mother. “But surely,” she said, “everyone does this?”

For years we’d been referring to the ‘ribald red’ of C sharp, and the ‘grainy green’ images (5)of October. We just hadn’t realised we were relatively rare (an estimated four per cent of the population has some form of synaesthesia) in our way of thinking.

From what I understand, the synaesthete’s brain works differently: senses overlap and interchange, information is not filed in one place but linked to a myriad of other data (thus synaesthetes often seem to make intuitive leaps, or recall facts from years past), and normal rules don’t apply. And while it can be a strain (everything I see, hear, smell, taste and touch sparks memories, connections and irrelevant thoughts), synaesthesia can also be extremely useful.

Learning the gender of German nouns, for example, was relatively easy: feminine was red, masculine green and neuter white, and every time I recalled a word, the appropriate colour would flash in my head. It’s also been extremely valuable in quizzes: long-forgotten facts can be dredged from the depths of my mind if I just allow my brain to make the right links. And telephone numbers or licence plates are a doddle (as long as I can get the colours, textures and sounds in the right order!).

It gets even weirder: people are also colours and shapes (and often have soundtracks). Over the years I’ve worked out that those my brain classifies as ‘white’ or ‘classical’ are generally steadfast philosophers, while the ‘sharp reds’ are ideas enthusiasts, and ‘green basses’ play by the rules but can be extremely selfish. In fact, synaesthetes need a whole new language to explain their thought processes; describing a relationship as “indigo concrete poured underneath ivory silk, overlaid with a minor key” doesn’t even begin to describe what’s going on in my head! Words, it seems, are not nearly enough.

But it’s all worth it because, although being a synaesthete sets me apart, it also holds me together. It helps in my work (if a piece feels sludgy grey, I’ll shoot it through with pointed vermillion words, or a wave of golden phrasing) and my friendships (trust the minor navies; party with the crimson majors), colouring my creations and lighting my world. Without synaesthesia, I’d be living in a cardboard cut-out world. Now, please excuse me. It’s Monday, so my acute yellow angles are playing havoc with my ability to craft cobalt squares…

Do you think you might be a synaesthete? If zero is white and one is black, you may well be experiencing one of its forms. For more information, visit http://synesthete.org

I’d love to hear from you, whether or not you’re a synaesthete!

SYRIO on Swords, Stannis, Snow and Star Wars

SYRIO on Swords, Stannis, Snow and Star Wars

In my capacity as Chief Features Writer for the Sunday Mail, I recently had the incomparable pleasure of crossing swords with Miltos Yerolemou, Game of Thrones’ Syrio Forel, when he attended Cyprus ComicCon 2015. Here are a few excerpts from the piece.

Scroll to end for link to full interview.

Known globally for his portrayal of Syrio Forel, the master swordsman in HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, Miltos is probably amongst the most recognisable actors in the world.

Both delightful and enigmatic, the actor is a master of charm, his rambling repartee and self-deprecation designed, one feels, to deflect from the fact that his is an incisive intellect. His lines may appear throwaway, but this is a man whose emotional capabilities have been fine-tuned by a profession that thrives on the carefully-maintained persona. And yet Miltos is impossible not to like.

Despite his effervescent veneer, he appears rather zen at times (he’s a Buddhist, and talks about seeing “true seeing, with all the senses”), flickering from sparkling wit to contemplative introspection. And in a meditative moment he shyly admits that of all the characters he’s portrayed, perhaps Syrio’s is closest to his own. “He’s the archetypal unconventional teacher, like Mr Miyake or Obi Wan. The noble hermit – even more noble than Ned Stark – there I’ve said it! Let HBO sue me!” he guffaws – “who’s the trigger for the protagonist’s story. I mean, Arya” – one of the main characters, and Syrio’s pupil – “would basically be dead if it weren’t for Syrio.”

That’s not to say that Miltos ever expected to get the part. Originally, he was up for Lord Varys, the skilled spymaster who commands a network of informants across two continents. “And they liked it, but they didn’t think I was right. So they gave me Syrio to read instead.”

By the fifth reading, he says, “I was told ‘The Americans are coming; they want to meet you in person’. And that’s when I basically lost it! It was probably between me and someone else, and I was just hoping that if I lost out it was to someone like Ben Kingsley, who would have made a brilliant Syrio. Though,” he grins, “maybe he was just too expensive…”

Speaking of other actors, I remind Miltos that he once said he’d love to see Gary Oldman appear in the series. “Oh yes!” he exclaims, imagination lighting the room. “I can see him showing up as a Night’s Watchman who’s been trapped north of the Wall and hasn’t spoken to anyone for 25 years. Or maybe he’s Jon Snow when he’s resurrected: older, dirtier, gruffer, less ripped…”

Is this a clue, I wonder? Does Miltos have inside information when he talks of Jon coming back to life? “It’s only my conjecture,” he says quickly. “Though I don’t for a second believe we’ve seen the last of him…”

If Jon Snow isn’t gone for good, who then was Miltos most surprised to see written out in a series that’s noted for unexpected deaths of its major characters? “Stannis,” he responds immediately. “I felt there was still a lot more of his story to be played out, and I really did want to see him kill Ramsey Bolton!” Fans, however, will be most relieved to hear that the plotline Miltos least expects to see played out in Season 7 is “the death of Tyrion”. Phew!

15730026991_aace20b7eeFrom Game of Thrones to Star Wars. And though he’s not allowed to say much – “my confidentiality agreement is longer than my contract,” he jokes later, during the public Q and A session he will admit the experience is “amazing! JJ Abrams has created this brilliant, brilliant world which is real, literally real. You get dressed up in costume and you’re on the set and everything you pick up and everyone you look at is so real! I mean, this is Disney and they’ve got the money to get every scene exactly right,” he adds. “You’ve got the designer from Blade Runner, the writer from The Empire Strikes Back, you’ve got JJ Abrams himself… what could possibly go wrong? Ha yes!” he exclaims with one of his sudden bursts of energy. “Write that down! Famous last words!”

From eastern-sounding guru to a character from another universe: Miltos possesses the ability to switch nationality, accent and personality at will. And one wonders, when he goes home at the end of the day, who he really is underneath it all.

“It’s a weird thing,” he muses, quietly, “but I would actually consider myself an introvert. I mean, I come across so gregarious, and I do these workshops and conventions and acting jobs, and I can talk to anyone. And then, when I’m not working I’m really quiet; quite reflective. I don’t need to go out socialising with friends; I unwind by being solitary, reading, being in nature. It’s very cathartic. I put so much of me into what I do, that ultimately there’s a cost. And you have to go away and recharge your batteries and be private.”

And that, I think, as we thank each other profusely, is as close to the truth as I’m going to get. Because for all his charm and sociability, I have a strong feeling that I’ve just interviewed someone who has revealed exactly what he wanted – nothing more, and nothing less – while keeping me entertained for hours. And coming from a world where nearly everything is public knowledge, that takes a great deal of ingenuity. I applaud Miltos Yerolemou – not just for his outstanding acting skill, teaching capabilities and incredible energy – but most of all for his intelligence.

Who do you think should have lived? And who deserves to die? I’d love to hear what you think…

The full article appeared in the Sunday Mail on September 27, 2015. 

HOW TO FIND YOUR FEATURE

images (14)There’s a lot more to finding a topic than mere stumbling opportunity. You mustn’t imagine I dash down to the corner shop for a pint of milk and randomly stagger upon a fully-fledged story of the “I’m Amazon’s best-selling comic-book writer; would you like full-fat or semi-skimmed?” variety. There is a great deal of work involved.
Of course, being Chief Features Writer at a national newspaper (click here to see the Sunday Mail website) does allow me access to an unprecedented number of Press Releases. But of the 100-odd that clunk into my inbox each week (advertisements for upcoming events; PR pleas for media coverage; disgruntled citizens with a grudge against – it oft transpires – almost everything) barely a brace merit further research. So I get out there and network.

Well, to be fair, mostly I stay in and work on the net.

USE YOUR ONLINE NETWORK

4440557945_c0ae223741I trawl Facebook (sponsored links provide interesting topics more often than you might imagine, especially if you’re covering local features); I shamelessly abuse my LinkedIn network (students writing theses are a great inspiration – they’re usually at the forefront of new ideas and knowledge); I Google upcoming happenings to see who’s planning a cutting-edge event. Spend enough time on the internet, and something of interest will pop up. Sometimes, it takes mere minutes. At others – I’m afraid – the process will involve hours of your time.

ABUSE YOUR REAL-LIFE SOURCES

Real-life sources are also a great inspiration. Over the years, I’ve built a select group of contacts who always seem to know what’s new and exciting long before anyone else. How they do it, I’m not sure, though I have noticed that they all share similar character traits. Thus my sources are generally extroverts who are constantly meeting new people, possess a social-media-552411_640
rampant curiosity and a good memory for detail, and an eye for what might interest the public. (Funnily enough, they’re mostly in the arts and education – a personality link worth pursuing, I suspect.)

MISUSE YOUR INTERESTS!

However, there are times when everything and everyone lets you down (including your Editor, who usually has a story or two in her back pocket ‘just in case’). Usually because it’s holiday season and everyone’s far too busy elsewhere. And that’s when I, personally, turn inward for inspiration…

Capture 1If all else has failed, I allow myself the luxury of choosing a topic that relates – not to anyone else and their doings – but to me and mine. In fact, some of what I know are my most-engaging pieces have resulted from an utter lack of subject matter. Third Culture Kids (http://bit.ly/1LnzYv1), of whom I am a typical example, was written at the height of the summer hols, but received more views than the rest of the month’s stories put together. The Wires of Connection (http://bit.ly/1QswWKs), which focused on connecting remotely with one’s family when abroad, was a big hit over Christmas. And Switching Off (http://bit.ly/1OhWn29), during which I went screen-free for a day, really resonated with readers over the Easter period. Sometimes, it seems, it really is best to write what you know.

At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a titillating topic, you need to be on the job 24/7. Relying on Press Releases, random emails and chance meetings is never enough. Most of the time, you’re going to have to put in a lot of work: screen-time, phone calls and emails all. But, always, always ensure you have a couple of personal interests for potential use just in case. (I have notes on ‘The Fear of Flying’, ‘Long-Distance Love’ and ‘Medical Mishaps’ for when that topic pool is shallower than a drought-ridden puddle.) Because you can’t byline a blank page.

Are you a writer? I’d love to hear from you about how you find your topics!

GROWING UP IN CYPRUS

images (13)From the age of four, when my family bought a holiday home in the glorious mountain village of Arsos, the people of Cyprus have never ceased to amaze me. Back then, it was still a nation finding its feet – and yet, even as strangers, we were welcomed with open arms.

My sister and I ran free with our newfound friends, playing in the breezy schoolyard on the crest of the hill, exploring the mysterious undergrowth in the forested valley and picnicking under the olive trees that dotted the hillside. We became part of the village, part of an extended family that would always feed us, water us and keep an eye on us. Never a day went by when we weren’t invited for a meal with neighbours, who quickly became firm friends.  Every hour would bring a new offering left on our street-facing windowsill: succulent grapes in September, feather light flaounas at Easter, luscious halloumi from Paraskevi down the lane.

Nowadays, people abroad see Cyprus on the news and shake their heads in concern. But it’s not like that at all. Twentysummer-361112_640 years later, that warmth of community spirit still lives on in every heart, and I’m still secure in the knowledge that wherever I go and whatever I do, there’s always someone looking out for me. Even in the city I find handfuls of fresh lemons, jars of olives and freshly baked kolouri on my doorstep every day…

BORN TO WRITE?

How to become a writer? Write!
How to become a writer? Write!

A (very) rough guide to becoming a Features Journalist

I was born a writer. In kindergarten, while my best friend painted the classroom gerbil, I – to the loosely-disguised chagrin of my long-suffering teacher – wrote utterly unpunctuated ten-page stories. But actually making a career from my love of words never occurred to me.

TEACH YOURSELF

My entire family, you see, are in education. Teachers of Music, Drama or Sport. Professors of Chemistry, Latin or Literature. Lecturers in Law, Biology or – in the case of one rather eccentric but indubitably brilliant uncle – Nuclear Physics. So my career path was set from an early age: to school I would go in order to, ultimately, go back into schooling.

Which I did. For several enjoyable – if exhausting – years during which I attempted to teach English to Key Stage 3. And I loved it, lesson planning and all. But what I truly adored was teaching the kids to write, constantly interrupting otherwise mundane lessons on, say, phrasal verbs, because it was about to rain; an excellent excuse for a spot of fig lang: “clouds like armies on the march”, “hellish heavens”, the onomatopoeia of rain…

And, in teaching kids to write, I was educating myself. There’s nothing that helps you see what works (and what doesn’t) than marking countless essays for punctuation, word use, sentence length, tautology…

BE PASSIONATE

Writing – be it creative, persuasive, descriptive or narrative – was clearly my educational forte. I loved teaching it; I loved learning about it (bedtime reading was The Queen’s English, Eats, Shoots and Leaves or Troublesome Words); I enjoyed images (11)creating worksheets far more than delivering the information. In fact, so strong was my passion that even my partner at the time was chosen – in the main – because he shared my appetite for words.

Unfortunately, where the two of us differed was in our ability to work to a deadline. Because he, bless him, was a typical I-promise-I’ll-have-it-in-by ten, eleventh-hour, news journalist. Which meant those many all-nighters during which we should have been agonisingly passionate in bed were, in fact, spent passionately agonising over the several articles due at 9 am. Cue the (word-) loving girlfriend…

MAKE THE TEA. WORK FOR FREE

I started with cups of tea to sustain his literary labours, but ended by writing the damn things for him. To give him his due, whenever I’d contributed significantly (in terms of actual authorship, rather than random beverage provision) he’d request images (12)that I, too, be by-lined. And this went on for well over a year…

Oh no, don’t think it happened overnight! Even in my fortuitous case, there was a lot of kettle-boiling, writing for free and picking up the tricks of the trade before anything happened. It just didn’t take place in an office…

GIVE IT YOUR ALL

Then, one day, there was a phone call from the editor: “A bout of flu”, “several concurrent pregnancies”,  “holiday season,”… The staff had been decimated. And someone – anyone – was needed to cover an important upcoming event. Could I? Would I? Might I have the time to…. And those all-important words: “You’ll be paid, of course…”

That first solo article involved two short interviews, a spot of internet research and totalled less than 1000 words. But I spent hours – days even – getting it right.

MAKE YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITIES

Fortunately, the paper liked it. Because now, a decade later, I’m their Chief Features Writer, with a thriving freelance sideline. I write for publications all over the world, and I’ll write about anything (A cleaning app? I can make that fun! Wakeboarding in winter? I’ll do it!).

My boyfriend – who went on to become Head Reporter for the very same publication – is no longer my partner in crime, though we remain the best of friends, and closest of wordsmiths. But I will always be grateful to him for giving me the confidence to forsake my educationally-fated genetic path and become what I was truly born to be.

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. In becoming a writer, you really do create your own chances: you learn, you practise, and you keep trying, no matter how long it takes you to get there. And if that means long nights, constant study, and working for free, so be it – eventually you’ll get noticed. At the end of the day, if you were born to write, then just do it. Write!

In entirely unrelated news, my best friend is now a leading make-up artist. Well done that gerbil!

WELCOME!

WIN_20150911_12_22_37_ProHi there, and welcome to a blog about everything that interests me (and, I hope, you)! 

So there’ll be a lot about writing, a great deal about Cyprus (and growing up abroad), as well as quite a few random thoughts on topics ranging from being an introvert (and how to make that work in an extrovert world!) to education, sports, the arts and creativity.

Come to think of it, there’s very little that doesn’t interest me. And that’s probably why I ended up as a features writer: interviewing people who love what they do enables me to live vicariously, picking up information, emotions and passions, before crafting them into stories that you, the reader, will hopefully enjoy. Because, at heart, that’s what I am. A wordsmith with a passion for telling a story…