For the Week of September 20, 2015: The Colors of Memories & Emotions

“Wouldn’t these be fun for you to use as one of your writing prompts?”  My husband held up a handful of colored squares from the paint section of the hardware store.

I smiled.  “I’ve been using paint chips in my workshops for years.  The names alone are wonderful triggers to all kinds of writing.  Like these, “ I said, reciting the names of samples in a color fan: “sea sprite, spiced vinegar, red gumball, or intellectual gray!  Intellectual gray, now maybe that’s the color I need for my office,” I laughed. “Do you think I’d be more productive?”

He shook his head and turned back to the color samples.  We were trying to choose paint colors for each of our offices, the hallways and kitchen, all in need of a fresh look, but we were sidetracked by the imaginative names of the paint chips.  Choosing paint colors was once a simpler matter.  Now, grouped in complimentary palettes, they’re designed for “room to room harmony” in tones labeled “natural,” “urban,” “perfectly polished” or “quiet.”  All evoke images of walls painted with harmonious colors, but also moods and memories.

Color carries strong emotional associations with it.  I remember living along the Nova Scotia coast, and the images I recollect are filtered with gray, not just because of the overcast skies, but the loss and sorrow that was also part of that experience.  My moods have always been affected by the colors in the landscape around me.  When we returned to Southern California in mid-August after two weeks in Toronto, the contrast in the two places was stark.  I’d reveled in the lush greens of Toronto neighborhoods, the canopy of trees along city sidewalks.  Returning, I was confronted by the aridity of the land, drought-stricken and brown, confronted me.  It seemed to crackle with dryness and tones of yellow and brown were everywhere I looked.  Within days, I felt as if I too, was parched and dry.  I lacked energy;  I struggled with my writing.  It took several days for me to “right” myself.

Color offers plenty of inspiration for writing.  A box of 53 crayolas, a stack of paint samples, or the colors in Nature can evoke many memories and associations.  Some colors elicit nearly universal meaning, for example, blue.  It communicates calm, but also sadness.  Red, by contrast, expresses warmth, but also anger.  Whether in a poem, a love song, the hard beat of rap, or smoky voice of a jazz singer, the mention a color immediately evokes a feeling or a mood.  “I got the blues for my baby…”  “Baby’s in black…”  “Seeing red…”

Color even plays a role in cancer.  In a December 2009 Cure Today supplement, “The Color of Cancer,” the cover illustration depicted men and women of all skin colors while the supplement addressed the issues of cultural differences in cancer care and treatment, such as lack of healthcare access, early diagnosis and individualized treatment.

The supplement’s title, “The Color of Cancer,” sent me to the bookshelf and my well-read copy of  The Cancer Poetry Project, Volume I, edited by Karin Miller and published in 2007.  Color played a part in several poems, whether used to describe a loved one or communicate the complex emotions of the cancer experience.

In “Bi, Bye-Bye, Buy,” by Mary Milton, the poem’s title echoes the upcoming mastectomies she faced, and the advice of a friend:  “Don’t start buying stuff to compensate” for her approaching surgeries.

…a sheet of bed sheets dusty coral
so blood stains won’t show much…
and shirts that open in front
one short-sleeved white
bad choice of color but I liked
its spirited portrayal of zebras
galloping through ferns
and gold paint splats
Besides it was on sale…

Joan Annsfire, infuses her poem, “First Summer,” with color to describe the glory of the first summer after her recovery:

…the Oregon landscape
was a work of art, vivid and deep
slices of cloudless blue opened
into evergreen valleys
bounded by a massive,

In “Red,” Elizabeth Johnson paints a vivid image of the moment in her mother’s hair began to fall out during chemotherapy:

…We had pulled them out in handfuls,
big beautiful red spirals that swung
‘round your freckled face
that danced across the green in your eyes…

This week, why not use color as your inspiration?  Color is a great means to express what we feel, whether poetry or prose.  Visualize your feelings as colors on an artist’s palette.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Head to the paint store and grab a few colored chips. Use either the color or the name of the paint as your prompt.  Try it two ways:
  1. Try combining the visual with the verbal. Begin with a 4 x 6 inch blank index card, and using crayons, magic markers, torn tissue paper or whatever you have on hand, try creating a mini-collage.  Draw, paint or paste colors on your card, ones that symbolize your feelings—whether fear, anger, a punch to the gut, desolation, boredom, or even hope.
  1. After you’ve created your mini-collage, study it for a few minutes before brainstorming words that come to mind. Then, start writing, capturing lines, images, comparisons–however color expresses itself in your writing.  Write for twenty minutes—longer if you wish. Maybe you will, as I have done from time to time, discover a poem or a story that begins with the inspiration of a single color,.

Purple as tulips in May, mauve

into lush velvet, purple

as the stain blackberries leave

on the lips, on the hands,

the purple of ripe grapes

sunlit and warm as flesh…

Red as henna, as cinnamon,

as coals after the fire is banked,

the cardinal in the feeder,

the roses tumbling on the arbor

their weight bending the wood

the red of the syrup I make from petals…

Here is my box of new crayons at your feet.


Green as mint jelly, green

as a frog on a lily pad twanging,

the green of cos lettuce upright

about to bolt into opulent towers,

green as Grand Chartreuse in a clear

glass, green as wine bottles.


Blue as cornflowers, delphiniums,

bachelors’ buttons. Blue as Roquefort,

blue as Saga. Blue as still water.

Blue as the eyes of a Siamese cat.

Blue as shadows on new snow, as a spring

azure sipping from a puddle on the blacktop…


(Excerpt: “Colors Passing Through Us,” by Marge Piercy, From: Colors Passing Through Us, 2003).

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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