March 2, 2020

Writing with Aphantasia

I have aphantasia. Many of you likely don't know what that is, although lately it's become better known due to some popular twitter posts (like this one or this one). Basically it means I can't visualize things—at all. I know what things are, logically and conceptually, but there is no mental picture that goes with it.

Though I didn't know it at the time, aphantasia is why when we did guided meditations in theater camp, I couldn't entirely understand the directions to "picture yourself in a field." It's why I can (well, used to be able to) paint from something, but why I could never draw or paint something without a source I could see. It's why when I hit the point in math that required visualizing things, like a curve rotating around an axis, I just couldn't do it. (I actually had a wonderful teacher in HS who worked around this by showing me computer simulations.) It's also why I am absolutely terrible with things like directions, since I can't visualize anything resembling a map, or build a "mental" one from living somewhere and moving through the streets.

A few years back I learned that aphantasia, while relatively rare, is something shared by others. Sometimes having a name for something really helps, even if my experience of it hasn't changed at all. I have to memorize facts for every single thing I want to be able to conceptualize (roses have thorns; birch trees are white with dark spots; owls have big eyes; etc.). I bet for many of you, even that short list produced images in your mind.

Aphantasia also impacts my memory, because memories are so often tied to visuals or other senses. I recently learned (as in, minutes before drafting this post) that aphantasia is tied to a lack of "picturing" other senses. I hadn't actively thought about it before, but I also can't imagine a smell, a sound, a taste, or how it feels to touch something. It's pretty mind-boggling to me that other people can genuinely hear or smell something just by thinking about it.

Everything—even music—for me is filtered through logic and words. For example, I know if you slam a door, it's a loud, sharp sound, even if I can't hear it in my head. I had a lot of musical training (for someone who's pretty hopeless as a musician), which genuinely helps, but "hearing" a melody for me still means naming the notes in my head. Similarly, I know what a rose is, or that they come in different colors, or that a chocolate cake baking in the oven smells appetizing. But whatever the item or sense in question, I have to actively translate "imagine X" into an understanding of what that logically means. It never becomes a picture—just a conceptual understanding.

As you can imagine, this drastically impacts my writing. I can't picture my characters, their movements, the spaces around them, or what they're smelling, tasting, hearing. I do know what they're feeling, in the emotional sense of the word (not in terms of touch). I know how they speak to each other, what they want. But everything else I have to conscientiously layer in, which is also why visuals (and other senses) are so rare in my work.

Personal experience and research (hooray for the internet!) help. I often look up pictures of settings such as bars, hotels, or cityscapes, even outfits and furniture. I sketch out very basic layouts of apartments/homes so my characters don't accidentally walk through walls, which has definitely happened in drafts because I can't visualize a space. Sometimes I'll find shortcuts like looking up an apartment building in the right area and using their floor plans.

It's possible this is part of why I'm such a slow writer. Everything other than emotions and dialogue, including figuring out gestures and mannerisms, requires even more intentional consideration. I don't see any of that. It has to be pieced together.

Another author wrote about his experience writing with aphantasia here, calling it a "patchwork." Though my method is in many ways different from his, that notion of taking pieces from here and there and bringing them together to add in everything outside the minds of my characters is pretty accurate. This is why I may sometimes write Urban Fantasy (like Mortal Musings) but no epic fantasy, which would require creating a full new world from my imagination. I suppose I could use the patchwork method to meticulously piece together an alternate world, but keeping my stories rooted in our real word means not worrying about creating and staying consistent in an environment that I can't imagine.

Even though I know this is a weakness to watch out for, sometimes those external pieces get overlooked while drafting. With Summer Seduction, it wasn't until I was revising that I realized I'd never described Tracy at all (don't worry, I added that in). The only reason Jeremy was described is because I was literally going off the cover image.

Hypothetically I could find pictures to use as a foundation for every character and setting, but visuals are not what inspires me to write, and so that's unlikely to be something I will ever do. My stories are built on the internal experiences of my characters, the language people use with each other, how they feel about each other, which I can imagine, even to the point of feeling it myself. Everything else is deliberately, painstakingly sprinkled in to help flesh out that external world, but it's not the primary focus of my writing.

In some ways aphantasia does feel like a disadvantage. If I saw my stories play out in my head like a movie, I would probably be able to write faster, and perhaps the end result would be better, rooted in sights and smells and the physicality of my characters in a more significant way.

But the aphantasia isn't going anywhere. So my stories will continue to be rooted in the emotional side of my characters instead. Still, I'll keep trying to add all those branches, leaves, and flowers on top, because I understand the story remains incomplete without them. After all, I experience the outside world, thankfully with all five senses. I just can't picture it.

Want to see where you fall on the visualization scale? Take this (fast and painless) test:—then share your experiences in the comments!

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  1. how interesting. i can see how it would impact your writing, but i'm glad you found your own footprint to follow
    sherry @ fundinmental

    1. Thanks, Sherry :) It might not be how others write, but hopefully folks still find something compelling in my stories.

  2. Hi! Last night I discovered aphantasia and was MINDBLOWN to find other people like me. As a writer, I have always struggled to finish projects because I get flustered with not being able to visualize. It has been such a relief to google "aphantasia and writing" and have results like this pop up... what a relief! Thank you for sharing your experience. It has helped me tremendously.

    1. I'm so glad you found this post helpful! It's always challenging to share something personal like this, but knowing it impacts others makes that easier. I hope you've been able to make progress on your writing!

  3. Thanks for this. I am also an aphant, find others who are successful at writing has been encouraging.