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.