on writing with aphantasia

Miriam Roberts asked: "I'm curious about being a writer with aphantasia, particularly since I found Ninefox Gambit to be fairly evocative.  Would you be willing to speak more about that?"

So here you go, Miriam!

I didn't realize for the longest time that aphantasia was a thing, just as for the longest time I didn't realize that not everyone has perfect pitch.  People would talk about seeing movies in their heads, or visualizing pictures, and I thought they were being metaphorical, or possibly pulling my leg.  Then I talked some with my boyfriend-now-husband Joe, and read about other readers' experiences of reading, and realized that no, people were being literal.  They saw pictures.

Perhaps it would help if I talk first about how I experience books as a reader.  For the longest time, I skipped or skimmed descriptive passages, especially those relying on visuals.  It wasn't until I discovered Patricia McKillip and Roger Zelazny in high school that I started actually reading those passages, for the beauty of the language, even if I (still) couldn't see things.  Unless there was some emotion being conveyed, they didn't communicate much to me.  I get associations with words, built over a lifetime of reading and listening.  If you describe shadows and darkness, in a Western context that probably implies evil or obscurity or secrets.  If you describe doves flying into the sky, I'm probably going to think of peace.  But I don't see it.

If that sounds weird, perhaps it might help to think of TV/movie soundtracks.  I don't know what the current research is on this, but I once read about a study performed on a people who had been isolated from Western musical tradition.  What that study found (and, again--I don't know if the results have been confirmed) is that a lot of the conventions we think of as "natural" in Western music are learned and arbitrary, rather than being universal.  For example, the convention is that "major keys are happy" and "minor keys are sad"; but that's learned.  Any time you sit and really listen to a score, the composer is playing on all sorts of conventions to evoke emotion in the viewer to complement the visuals.  For me, "visual descriptions" can be painted with to evoke emotion, even if I'm fumbling a bit because I don't have the movie in my head to guide me.

There are some weird side-benefits to this.  I am a wuss about watching certain types of violence/gore on the screen.  I had to bail out of a Hannibal vid recently not because the vid was poorly edited (it was gorgeously done) but because the violence freaked me out.  But I have a much higher tolerance for violence in prose format, because I can't see what's going on.  If I bail, it's much likelier to be because the emotion is too intense, rather than the gore.

How do I deal with aphantasia when I write?  A lot of the time I try to avoid getting very specific and choreographic about motion, location, action.  Someone who can visualize things (or is a martial artist?  or a dance/stage choreographer?) is always going to write this stuff better than I can.  If I can get away without specifying left/right or entrances to the north or whatever, I will.  (I sometimes suspect I have dyslexia or some kind of deficit, because I find it very hard to deal with left and right just walking around.   But I've never been tested for it, and at this point it's kind of moot.)

On those occasions that I do have to get specific, I try to do it in measured doses, rather than choreographing a whole sequence.  That thing Jack Campbell does in his Black Jack Geary books, where all the fleets are maneuvering in highly specific ways?  I can't follow the maneuvers in my head.  (My husband might be able to, because he's highly visual--I'll ask him sometime.--Okay, he's home and I asked him, and he said he can see them vaguely.  He points out that he also plays a lot of space combat games, e.g. Homeworld.)  But Campbell supplements the physical motion stuff with emotional arcs--we're losing, oh wait our bacon was saved by X ship, oh no our flank is taking a lot of hits, things like that.  (I paraphrase!)

The other thing that helps me is that while I am terrible at providing visuals, or interpreting them, I do have other senses!  I can write description relying on smell, or sound.  As you may have guessed, I have perfect pitch.  I mean, not that that's always helpful in a writing context.  I have proprioception, probably not to any extraordinary degree, but I know what it feels like to move my body.  So sometimes if I need to write an action scene, I will draw on that instead.  I've been doing kung fu for a little bit (very badly; I'm not athletic) and I've been taking lessons in ballroom/social dance as a follow for the past year or so.  I'm probably never going to be a particularly good dancer, but being a follow is surprisingly useful training.  It's all about being receptive and paying attention to the lead's cues, plus learning better posture (ahahahaha anyone who has met me in person knows that I have atrocious posture) and frame.  And while I'm not great, I'm better than I was a year ago, and learning about body-awareness has been helpful in its way.

When I write passages of prose, part of it is that I'm trying to string together images in a way that makes emotional sense to me.  I worry about this technique because I know that I'm probably losing visual readers.  But I can't write visuals that I can't see.  I compose as a hobby, and trying to write real visual descriptions feels kind of like being asked to compose for an instrument whose range no one has told me and whose timbre I've never heard.  It's flailing around in the dark.

In writing, I'm much more sound-oriented--I don't mean describing sounds in the characters' environment, I mean the sound of the prose.  I "hear" everything I write or read in my head.  I know they say reading out loud is a good technique, and I believe it, but it feels incredibly redundant when I'm already hearing the prose anyway.  The rhythm of the prose is very important to me.  Sometimes if I want to write an intense emotional moment, I underscore it rhythmically or figure out how I want the timing to fall on the ear.  And maybe that's wasted effort--I know people who don't "hear" the prose, so this probably doesn't do anything for them.  Unless podcast/audiobook?   But of course, there's no guarantee anyway that anyone will "read" the text the same way I hear it in my head.  It's a little like trying to compose for someone else who is missing part of the rhythmic information.  But then, the vision of the world in the writer's head will never exactly match whatever is in the reader's head.  (Claude Shannon told us about this with information theory!)

I am not sure I recommend this mode of writing to anyone else?  I suspect it's too idiosyncratic to be helpful in general.  My suspicion just anecdotally is that most writers and readers are visual thinkers.  But who knows?  Someday I am going to find another writer with aphantasia and we can compare notes!