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Apr
30
2018

Aphantasia and Writing -- by Crystal Trobak

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.

Posted by Crystal Trobak 30 Apr at 02:01
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Responses to this blog

Rellrod 30 Apr at 18:15  
Crystal — interesting!

Thanks for describing this variation in experience; it's helpful to know that different readers may react quite differently to extensive visual descriptions. (Which may have something to do with the wide variety of opinions about such descriptions. )

Does aphantasia extend to all the senses? Is there a similarly 'null' result in trying to imagine a sound, a smell, a touch?

Rick
Czing 30 Apr at 19:35  
I seem to recall there being some mention of it existing for other senses (or that it was under study) - in one of the articles I read about it. But can't say I know for sure.

In the end, I imagine that even within a group of people at the very non-visual end like me there is a range of how they would react to long descriptions. Some might even love them. Maybe there are even very visual people who respond like me and don't want the descriptions either - because they want to make up their own picture of things. The world is so wonderfully diverse - it sometimes amazes me that with all our variety of experience we have figured out how to communicate at all
__________________
Done editing for the time being - about to embark on a short story spate!

Vandrelyst 30 Apr at 19:47  
Interesting. Personally I love good descriptions in both what I read and what I write, so I'm thinking you wouldn't love my stories.

Oddly, despite that, I feel like I can imagine your perspective in some ways.

"I honestly, and truly donít understand why they care"


That's a bit how I feel with my character descriptions! I have realized it's a good idea to have some very basic, non-changeable things laid out about my characters so that they are not totally mis-imagined by the readers who create strong mental images, just in case something like their hair color has some minor relevance later and might confuse those readers. Otherwise, I don't tend to picture faces as I read, not in any clear, describable way, anyway, and I don't expect readers to. Oops!

Perhaps this is because I'm a tiny bit face-blind... takes me longer to learn faces than some people (although becoming a teacher to 400 elementary school students has helped with this ENORMOUSLY. Still really struggle and embarrass myself daily with the armies of parents and grandparents, though.) My overall visual imagination isn't great without help (maybe that's why I like to read descriptions, look at photographs, etc? as per your comment about some people with aphasia loving descriptions, maybe it helps them to experience what it's like to have visual imagination or something?) but when you bring in all the other senses, I can do a pretty good job imagining being in a setting. With people, on the other hand, even when I think of my closest friends and family I had a hard time describing what their faces look like or really caring beyond recognizing them.

Now I'm thinking... if I were to read a book that just went on and on about the character's faces, would I be bored? Hmm, maybe. We don't really write books like that. It's easy for me to skip over 5-10 paragraphs in a book describing a characters' facial features. And even if we did, I don't think it's really comparable to writing about landscapes, which are filled with so many different plants and animals and geological features and human habitation and — ! I love them.

Your follow-up comment about the range of reactions is interesting too. People are so complicated!

I was also wondering about this:

"I donít 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."
Well, what about those books where the descriptions of the setting are intimately tied up with the theme? I'm thinking about the works in which the landscape or the city function almost as a character. Let's assume this is done very well. Do you still find it boring even when there's a reason for it and it's done well? Because you can't imagine it? I'm guessing so, but I am curious.

Thanks for sharing.
Czing 30 Apr at 20:07  
Well, what about those books where the descriptions of the setting are intimately tied up with the theme? I'm thinking about the works in which the landscape or the city function almost as a character. Let's assume this is done very well. Do you still find it boring even when there's a reason for it and it's done well? Because you can't imagine it? I'm guessing so, but I am curious.
No if there is a clear tie to theme or plot or something I won't find it boring (well unless it really goes on and on and on). It also helps if it is interspersed and not in solid blocks where it is all description. If you have 20 lines of description of a grove of trees and they are all in a giant block of paragraphs - even with some hooks to themes it is probably going to be a slog for me. But break those 20 up into palatable bits within the rest of what is going on and I will have no problem with it.

Or if as you say the place itself is practically a character and it is presented fairly clearly as a such it would likely work for me in larger chunks that might otherwise work for me. But in that case you aren't going to be going on and on about detailed description without some greater meaning being worked into it.
__________________
Done editing for the time being - about to embark on a short story spate!

Lexicon 2 May at 17:30  
This was such a great post! I have the same issue, and this part really resonated with me:
I donít 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.
Trying to explain it to other people, though, has been interesting. The only way I can really describe it is reading and picturing by emotion and character. You're also the first person I've seen talk about what it means in a writing context - I've had people struggle to connect with mine because they say they don't feel grounded enough in the scene because they can't picture exactly where the characters are (beyond 'bedroom', for example) and what they're doing. So this also made me pump my fist in silent acknowledgement:
I honestly, and truly donít understand why they care, I can try to understand it on an academic/intellectual level Ė but I canít really connect with that desire.
How have you found adding descriptions for the sake of those comments, or do you avoid doing that?
Czing 2 May at 17:52  
How have you found adding descriptions for the sake of those comments, or do you avoid doing that?
Honestly I mostly don't. But I have not done much in the way of submitting stories - so perhaps that choice will need to be moderated over time. I may need to it do more in the long run. But I hope I can "get away" with keeping it very sparse when I do.

I think sometimes it feels a bit forced. I wonder if I have picked the wrong things to include when I do actually try to set the scene. BUT I listened to an interesting podcast that I expect to help me with this. Each character focuses on different things - what might draw my attention wouldn't even twig the interest of someone else. That idea helps me a lot because I can approach it from the perspective of using it as a sort of character development. Telling the reader what things draw the notice of the character. At least I hope this will help to inform my work in the future (I only picked up that tidbit recently).

How do you manage it in your writing?
__________________
Done editing for the time being - about to embark on a short story spate!

Lexicon 2 May at 21:04  
Each character focuses on different things - what might draw my attention wouldn't even twig the interest of someone else... I can approach it from the perspective of using it as a sort of character development. Telling the reader what things draw the notice of the character.
Oh, I love this. That's a great tip!

How do you manage it in your writing?
Badly. Seriously though, I start with the mood of the scene - instead of describing the place in detail I try and give descriptions that reflect how my character is feeling but don't give a blow-by-blow of what it looks like (arid, desolate, cozy, etc.) interspersed with generic items I think should be there, like a bed and desk in a bedroom.

Sometimes it works, mostly I'm still left with the issue that my reader doesn't 'see' the place and isn't grounded enough. :/ Don't get me started on action scenes like fight scenes, those descend into the character's thoughts and emotions on the fight itself instead of 'she blocked his swing with her left and shifted her weight and...'
Wordymouth 30 May at 15:53  
This explains a lot for me. Some of my readers dislike my visual cues and tell me they don't care for the story. Hopefully, they are on this spectrum and I'm not some sort of flop.

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