I can’t really picture it…

But then, I can’t real­ly pic­ture any­thing. I have no visu­al imagery, no abil­i­ty to con­jure up at will an image of a face or a land­scape. I have no ‘mind’s eye’ with which to look at the world I remem­ber or imag­ine. As a writer this has steered me very strong­ly toward non­fic­tion, and while I don’t despair of ever writ­ing fic­tion, I accept that I will nev­er do so eas­i­ly or nat­u­ral­ly. While a blank inter­nal screen may not be an insur­mount­able cre­ative hur­dle, I am not going to jump off any pro­sa­ic build­ings to prove that I have fic­tion­al wings.

I was sev­en or eight years old when I first became aware that visu­al imagery was some­thing I was unable to do. I had decid­ed that ‘imag­i­na­tion’ meant the abil­i­ty to close your eyes and bring into view a movie of what­ev­er your mind could encom­pass. But when I tried it, all I saw after repeat­ed and stren­u­ous attempts was black­ness, or the warm dark glow of sun­light through my eye­lids, or bright flash­es of light if I pressed my fin­gers into the cor­ners of my eyes. Clear­ly, I was forced to con­clude, I had no pow­er of imagination.

This was a bit demor­al­is­ing for a young child, espe­cial­ly one whose mind is teem­ing with ideas that he is unable to recog­nise as imag­i­na­tion sim­ply because they do not fit into the def­i­n­i­tion that he has bound him­self to. But some­how I remained cre­ative despite the con­stant knowl­edge that I was lim­it­ed, defec­tive. There was­n’t much I could do about it, after all, so I guess I sim­ply accept­ed the fact and moved on as best I could.

It was there­fore an unlooked-for con­so­la­tion to learn, in 2001, that there was noth­ing wrong with me after all. In the fore­word to Patri­cia Lynne Duffy’s book Blue Cats and Char­treuse Kit­tens (a ground­break­ing work about a fas­ci­nat­ing con­di­tion called synæs­the­sia, which falls out­side the scope of this essay) the com­par­i­son is made to anoth­er men­tal phe­nom­e­non that puz­zled sci­en­tists a hun­dred years ago: visu­al imagery. Far from being the norm (as it appar­ent­ly is today, at least anec­do­tal­ly), it was a sub­ject of wide­spread increduli­ty until late in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry when new test­ing tech­nolo­gies final­ly made it pos­si­ble to con­firm that some per­sons could, indeed, pic­ture things at will.

This was tremen­dous. Visu­al imagery was not some­thing every­one could do; most peo­ple, per­haps, but cer­tain­ly not all, not his­tor­i­cal­ly. I was dif­fer­ent, per­haps, but not (clin­i­cal­ly) abnor­mal. If any­thing I was sim­ply reflect­ing a more lim­it­ed expo­sure to visu­al stim­u­la­tion (i.e. tele­vi­sion and movies) dur­ing my for­ma­tive years than many of my con­tem­po­raries, so that my thoughts were pri­mar­i­ly ver­bal rather than visu­al. (I have noth­ing beyond my ama­teur con­jec­ture to show there is any such cause-effect rela­tion­ship. But it is sug­ges­tive that in an age before ubiq­ui­tous visu­al media visu­al imagery was con­sid­ered a phe­nom­e­non, where­as now it is viewed as the norm.) And for the first time I began to talk with my friends about what I had always expe­ri­enced as my pri­vate fail­ing, to ref­er­ence it in con­ver­sa­tion or use it to explain that I some­times need­ed to approach prob­lems dif­fer­ent­ly because I was unable to see them in my head.

Peo­ple were puz­zled by this odd rev­e­la­tion that I could not do some­thing that all of them took for grant­ed, but after the ini­tial con­fu­sion most were accept­ing and intrigued. The excep­tion was my girl­friend at the time. In my expla­na­tion I gave her the exam­ple that I was unable to visu­alise her face, which she took to mean that I could not remem­ber what she looked like when she was not present. This was not strict­ly true: I could remem­ber what she looked like just fine; I just could­n’t pic­ture her the way that most humans, in both our expe­ri­ences, appar­ent­ly can do. I thought it mere­ly a rel­e­vant exam­ple, not a rela­tion­ship haz­ard. But it weighed heav­i­ly on her mind.

My mind is filled with lives and sto­ries — remem­bered and imag­ined — that I strive to bring to life on the page. Whether or not I can see faces and places in my mind, I can think and feel with per­fect alacrity. Emo­tions, reac­tions, opin­ions, mem­o­ries, hopes, con­cerns: these I have in abun­dance, and when I put ink on paper it is to turn my thoughts and feel­ings into writ­ten words. Sweep­ing fic­tion full of mag­nif­i­cent vis­tas is unlike­ly to flow from my pen; it is dif­fi­cult to make oth­ers see what I can­not see myself. I could strug­gle might­i­ly to over­come this hand­i­cap, but it does not feel worth it to me. When there are so many ways I can write, why should I fret over the ways I can­not? I can’t think of a rea­son any­more. Instead I fill the pen, turn to a clean page and press on with my task: writ­ing blind in the world of my imagination.

1 Comment

  1. Why have we nev­er talked about this??? I’ve always had the same problem…I was nev­er able to con­jure up images of peo­ple even if they were in the same room with me. It has always been the same when I read…I could nev­er pic­ture any of it. I nev­er doubt­ed my imag­i­na­tion though…I thought of way too many crazy things 🙂 Hope you’re hav­ing a fan­tas­tic summer!


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