Aphantasia and Writing

Close your eyes. Picture a beach, or a scene from one of your favourite books.

For most of you this activity involves seeing an image. Some will have hyper-detailed images in front of them, others will run a wide spectrum of “image quality”. I see black.

Crystal Trobak
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Close your eyes. Picture a beach, or a scene from one of your favourite books.

For most of you this activity involves seeing an image. Some will have hyper-detailed images in front of them, others will run a wide spectrum of “image quality”. I see black. That is all. If I try extremely hard I might get a sort of image of some lines of lighter black. Sometimes if I try to visualize with my eyes open I almost feel like I can bring an actual image to mind, but it requires real effort of will to do so – and it is barely there in any meaningful way. This doesn’t mean I don’t understand what those things look like – I don’t see them, but I do “get” what they look like.

Our inner eye runs on a spectrum, I believe I am on the pretty far non-visual end of it. This condition was recently dubbed Aphantasia. Until I read this article http://www.bbc.com/news/health-34039054 a couple years ago, I had no idea my experience was really any different than anyone else’s.

What does this mean for me as a reader?

I do not visualize as I read. I get the concepts in a different way - that I find hard to describe. Perhaps it could be considered more verbal – but it isn’t that I hear them.

I actually avoid images in things like text books unless I need to review them, I ignore them in favour of the text content.

I don’t care about descriptive elements of a story UNLESS they have bearing on character development, plot development, or are important for more than setting a visual space for the reader. 

An extended description of a complex arrangement of character positions/room elements, or action elements, without very strong hooks to emotion/purpose/tone will leave me completely lost and will suck me right out of the story.

Any book with a lot of the above will either go on the “unfinished” pile, or will go on the “how dull” pile. I find it intriguing that an author who hopes to enliven their work by painting a detailed world can leave me with the exact opposite experience.

What does this mean when I critique?

I will always try to give the author the heads up that I am not visual – so to take my commentary on description from that point of view.

Often, I will ask for relevance hooks in any block of description. I want to know why it matters and will point out when that doesn’t feel present to me.

What does this mean for me as a writer?

First drafts are almost completely absent any kind of scene settings and almost never contain any physical descriptions of characters unless it is relevant to the action/plot/character arc etc. This unfortunately leaves you visual types feeling the way I feel when there is a lot of complex description.

Critiques are vital in helping me recognize the places where the lack of description is a particular problem. Critique comments generally fall into two categories for me, ones I understand and ones I don’t think I will ever fully comprehend.

When I hear that it affects the reader’s ability to follow the flow. For example, a setting I haven’t described leaves a reader surprised by something (i.e. character moving or changing position when I didn’t establish their initial position).

When they just want to know what the place looks like, so they can picture it – that is where I fall short of full comprehension. I honestly, and truly don’t understand why they care, I can try to understand it on an academic/intellectual level – but I can’t really connect with that desire.  

When something needs a visual description because of a story requirement, I think I occasionally come up with a pretty good little descriptive piece (even on a first draft). But, it will almost always contain the minimal amount of detail.

 

My writing will never fall into the highly descriptive category. I will still leave it almost completely up to my readers to imagine how the characters look, what colour a room is and all those details. Except when some piece of it is important to the tale I hope to share. Then I will try to paint a word picture that I can’t see.

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