Writing with the Phenomenon Aphantasia – with Guest Author Sarah Wallace

We writers have vivid imaginations. If you’re someone like me, I picture so many pieces of my story in my head before I write it––characters, settings, clothing, you name it! I’m someone who has a very active mind’s eye, which is why I tend to get positive feedback on my scene-setting and visual imagery in my stories.

What if you didn’t have a mind’s eye to rely on?

My guest author, Sarah Wallace, is someone who experiences this exact phenomenon. Having just released her debut novel, Letters to Half Moon Street, it’s clear that a mind’s eye is not required to write an excellent story. However, this little phenomenon called Aphantasia impacts the way she reads and approaches writing.

Writing with Aphantasia

by Sarah Wallace

All my life I have been a compulsive skimmer.

When I read books, if I get to a large block of description or detailed action sequences, I pretty much immediately start skipping ahead, generally, looking for the next bit of dialogue. For years, I couldn’t understand why everyone else I knew could visualize characters while I couldn’t. I could read a thorough description of a character’s looks and have a theoretical idea of what they looked like, but there was no image popping up in my head.

A little over two years ago, I read a book on my sister’s recommendation and asked her how she imagined the main characters. She said, to my astonishment, “I don’t know. I never visualize characters.” I was delighted! I wasn’t the only one! It wasn’t some sort of creative failing on my part! She went on to explain that it was actually a phenomenon experienced by others and that there was a word for it, although she couldn’t recollect what the word was. She remembered, however, that Glen Keane (a legendary Disney animator) experienced it as well. As soon as she left, I googled “Glen Keane visualization” and I discovered Aphantasia.

Aphantasia is, essentially, an inability to visualize things.

I don’t have a mind’s eye. If I’m doing a guided meditation and the guide tells me to close my eyes and picture a beach, I can sort-of-kind-of imagine the idea of a beach…I know there will be water, sand, sun, and maybe a palm tree? But it’s nothing sharp or concrete, and it takes a lot of work to hold onto the vague image.

As a reader, this was an illuminating discovery. All those years of glazing over large chunks of descriptions made sense. My favorite parts of books are, inevitably, dialogue. Why? I don’t need to visualize anything for dialogue. With well-written dialogue, I can get a strong sense of character, relationships, and plot. Large blocks of description or action, however, are something I struggle with. I have to really focus to pay attention to how a character is described or the details in a room because it doesn’t do much for my imagination. I’ve unwittingly trained myself to ignore it, which makes it even harder.

As a result, I can tell you which writers excel at writing dialogue. Ones that come to mind are Gail Carriger, Patricia C. Wrede, Baroness Orczy, Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, Lloyd Alexander, Gerald Morris, Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia MacLachlan, and Kate Coombs. These are books I’ve read over and over again and have memorized exchanges or conversations.

These are books that allowed my non-visual mind to still connect to the world and to the characters. When I’m reading Gail Carriger’s parasolverse books, for instance, I can immediately recognize Professor Lyall as soon as “sandy-colored hair” is mentioned. It’s so helpful. It’s like a buzzword. I don’t have to actually know what the characters look like; I just memorize their descriptors. Another tactic I’ve come to love is when authors use Pinterest boards to indicate how they imagine their characters.

Learning about my Aphantasia has helped me reduce its impact on my writing. My books are, generally, rather slim on descriptions, especially the setting. I try my best to set the scene, but I depend on my beta readers and editor to tell me when my descriptions are lacking.

Some places, like Viscount Bertie Finlington’s study, have specific descriptions due to the character or the way I’ve blocked a scene in my head. There are items in Bertie’s study that are there because it feels right for his character to have them. Other items were included because of how I wrote certain scenes.

In my work in progress, for instance, Bertie has a conversation with two (new!) characters in his study. I wanted to give him a sense of power so I had him perched on the edge of his desk, looking down. I wanted the two characters to have a feeling of nervousness so I placed them sitting down as well, so they had to look up at him. I made their seats wingback chairs because a) wingback chairs are cool and b) they added to the sensation of the characters sitting in them feeling penned in. I now know some of the furniture in Bertie’s office and I know where all of the characters are in this particular scene because it matters to the tone and the feel of the scene, as well as adding to the characters’ internal thoughts and emotions. But I honestly couldn’t tell you what color the wingback chairs are.

As a writer, I tend to lean heavily on dialogue. As someone who laps up dialogue like it’s the best part of a book (because, to me, it is), I can’t help but have my characters solve as many problems as possible through conversation. I love writing dialogue I love using it to show what characters are thinking, what they’re hiding, how they’re feeling. I love seeing if I can sneak subtext into a conversation.

I’ve taken to adopting certain habits from other authors that have helped me as a reader. As I work on sequel books in my series, I reuse previously written descriptions so readers will be able to recognize characters instantly. I’ve started using Pinterest as an integral writing tool. Sometimes I’ll ask an alpha reader to “cast” the character for me.
As soon as I have pictures, it’s much easier for me to describe how the characters look. (fun fact: my headcanon for Charles is Henry Golding).

It can be a definite drawback being a writer with Aphantasia, especially since I developed a lot of habits in an unconscious effort to make up for it. But learning about it, putting a name to it, has helped me better adapt to my brain’s inability to visualize.

Learn more about Sarah

Sarah Wallace lives in Florida with her cat, more books than she has time to read, a large collection of classic movies, and a windowsill full of plants that are surviving against all odds.

She only reads books that end happily!

Sarah is the debut author of Letters to Half Moon Street, available now!

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