Aphantasia: Writing Fiction With No ‘Mind’s Eye’

From Writer Unboxed:

Aphantasia: Writing Fiction With No ‘Mind’s Eye’

I’d been writing fiction for more than a decade before I encountered the term “aphantasia,” which describes a rare inability to see mental images in the mind’s eye.

I’d been instructed many times to visualize an image to meditate, relax, remember or write, but when I tried, I saw nothing. Over time, I assumed that “visualize” and “mind’s eye” were figures of speech. I didn’t know other people could literally generate images in their minds without a real-life image to look at.

Media reports suggest aphantasia affects about 2% of the population, or one of every fifty people. The condition may be genetic or the result of trauma. By their own reports, my parents see mental images; my sibling doesn’t.

People with aphantasia learn to substitute other mental processes to work around the lack of mental images to some extent. Instructed to “picture a lemon,” I can think of the color yellow and the classic shape of a lemon. Asked to “picture the letters of the alphabet,” I can sketch them in my mind’s eye, in monochrome, up to about the letter “h,” then I get a vicious headache and have to stop.

Aphantasia may be complete or partial, on a spectrum. The Aphantasia Network offers information and a self-assessment questionnaire.

As a fiction writer, my ignorance of aphantasia proved problematic and frustrating.

Conversations with my writing instructors typically went like this:

Me: I’m struggling with writing descriptions.

Instructor: Picture the scene in your mind. Write what you see.

Me: Huh?

Instructor: Just picture it.

Me: …?

So, how have I worked around aphantasia to write fiction?

Whenever possible, I visit my settings in real life and write notes about what I observe.

In writing my Fantasy novel, I stuck with Contemporary Fantasy — our world, our time — rather than write about an imagined world. Setting the story where I live, in Ventura, California, gave me plenty of places to see in real life. I scheduled time to visit my settings during the same season and at the same time of day as my characters.

When I’m unable to visit a setting, I rely on library books with pictures, Google Images, Google Earth, YouTube videos and other visual online resources as references to write descriptions. To create the fictional island in my novel, I relied in part on a U.S. Park Service video, I developed these strategies without knowing about aphantasia or having any idea why descriptions proved so difficult for me to write.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

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