If I ask you to picture a strawberry, or a chair, or a saucepan can you see those things in your mind’s eye?
About 15 years ago I realised I didn’t see things in my head the way other people seem to. If I try to picture a strawberry I see nothing. A chair only makes me think of the chairs in my classroom at work but I don’t really ‘see’ them. Same for a saucepan, I know what my saucepans look like but I’m not seeing a picture in my head.
You are probably thinking: what!?! or at least that is most people’s reaction when I tell them this.
Granted, this is a self-diagnosis but the way people who have this ‘condition’ describe their mind’s eye is very familiar to me. Ask me to ‘picture’ something and I have to work really hard to do so and even if I manage to, the image is wavy and indistinct and slides away before I can really look at it. This is the same for memories too.
And reading. And writing.
I don’t find it difficult to experience reading. I hunt for descriptions of feelings and emotions and tend to pay less attention to description of people and places for the sake of information. For example, a phrase like ‘[h]is face had lengthened, the angled cheekbones more pronounced, although we all looked thinner.’ (Lauren Chater, The Lace Weaver) is not very useful for me. This is not because the writer isn’t being successful, it is because I cannot work out how to conjure a face in my mind. The following description (also from Chater) is better for me because it includes an action and a sound and this helps me to imagine it, at least a little bit:
I put out a hand and gripped the back of the nearest chair. The oak beam was solid, but a loose chair leg wobbled beneath the weight and squeaked. The sound made Oskar turn his head.
But, I have no face for Oskar. Descriptions of places are even less useful.
Our house in Adelaide had two storeys and a cellar. The wainscots were fine cedar wood and the walls whitewashed within and stonework without. There were sixteen-paned windows all through the house, two of them in the drawing room.
This description is from Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek. I do not see a large house when I read it, although I know what I am supposed to understand about this residence and I know what all the different aspects of the house look like, I just don’t ‘see’ them. Descriptions that say things like ‘on the left was this thing and towards the back sometime else’ are murky nonsense to me.
The other thing is that I can and do appreciate beautifully written description. I don’t see the image most times but the language the writer uses often stops me in my tracks.
The air moved around him, full of rich dank smells. Trees stood tall over him. A breeze shivered through the leaves then died, and left only the vast fact of the forest.
This is from Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. When I read this I am not picturing the character standing in the forest, I am enjoying the way she has put the words together, the way they sound, and the way they say so much.
As for writing…
This is hard. I have had to train myself to write description because even though it is useless for me, I know it is necessary for many readers. I try to link my description to action and find that I am most drawn to everyday actions and gestures. I don’t know if this is because I write about the everyday of the past or vice versa. Some examples:
A character’s clothes: “It is warm in my skirts and my apron and my faded shirt and underclothes. My legs catch the cloth and it wraps and weaves between them.”
A place: “The sun was beginning its turn into the sea, had that brightness that comes of an afternoon, sharp and hard. But the leaves twisted towards it and the garden was soft. My shoes sunk into the tilled earth as I walked along the row towards him. He lifted his head in that way he has: tilted towards me, a crease of a smile in his eye.”
(When I put this example here I was overcome with confusion about whether that “has” at the end should be “had”. The character is writing (a letter) about a moment in the past but about someone who still lifts his head in that way in their present…argh! Confusing!)
I do, however, collect images to use in my writing. Things I have actually seen are much easier to recall and ‘see’. Again, the everyday helps here. And things I’ve seen again and again in my life.
For example, the experience of viewing a house at night with its lights on helped me with this: “Of an evening we would dress and take a carriage to a party; a house’s lights stretching into the dusk like welcoming fingers, twinkling with jewels.”
This is also why I need to go and see things and deliberately plant the image in my mind. I have set my novel in the WA town of Kellerberrin. I have been there a few times now and for some reason landscape (be it human or nature) is much easier for me to remember and ‘see’ so I can recall the way the streets are and where things are in the town enough to let me describe and write about it.
I also use all kinds of images (photographs, paintings, diagrams) to help me create places and people in my work. I have some blog posts coming about how I do this, so stay tuned!
Feedback on my work has sometimes included the suggestion that it has a cinematic quality to it. This makes me very happy because I think it must mean that readers are ‘seeing’ something. It is also possible that the only way I understand images is in viewing on screens and I have used that to inform my work. Who knows? Does it matter?
Do you have congenital aphantasia? I’d love to hear from you and the tricks you use to compensate for it, especially for reading and writing.