Writing Fantasy Without a Mind’s Eye

Aphantasia, living without a mind's eye, doesn't hinder creativity. Despite my inability to visualize, I wrote and published a fantasy novel, proving creativity thrives in unique ways.
Without a Mind's Eye
Writing Fantasy Without a Mind's Eye?

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I have aphantasia. I have just published a fantasy novel. Is that possible? For those readers who may not be sure what aphantasia is, it is a non-standard way of thinking. What is non-standard about it? We live without a mind’s eye, as it is often called. 

If asked to imagine a beach, around 96% or more of people could ‘see’ an image or even feel the warmth of the sun and the sand between their toes and hear the water lapping on the shore. I am a full-senses—or “total”—aphant, so I can’t do any of those things.

Imagination Versus Being Imaginative

Unlike most people with aphantasia, I have always known that I couldn’t visualize. Regardless, I knew I would do well in life, and have found ways to be successful. However, before 2013, when I was 63, I assumed that writing a fantasy novel was beyond me because I didn’t think I was able to ‘imagine.’ How could I write about a fantasy world without a mind’s eye?

The English word ‘fantasy’ is derived from the Greek word ‘phantasia’ loosely referred to as “thinking with images.” The ‘a’ at the beginning of the word is called an alpha privative, which basically negates what comes after it. So a-phantasia basically means ‘thinking without images,’ and many take that to mean ‘no imagination.’ However, how we use the word ‘imagination’ today does not necessarily mean ‘thinking with images.’ For most, while it includes images, it’s more than that. It means being able to come up with something new and different—to be imaginative

Before March 2013, I didn’t know that aphants could be imaginative. In fact, I didn’t know that I could be imaginative.

Though Living Without a Mind’s Eye, Why Didn’t I Think I Could Write a Fantasy Novel?

In March of 2013, I got a story in my head. I’ve always read and enjoyed fantasy, but now suddenly, I had my own fantasy story in my head, and it wouldn’t go away! I started writing it down, hoping that I could get rid of it. I kept writing and writing, and then I didn’t want to get rid of it! I just kept writing!

I realized it would take more than one book to get the whole story down. When I got to the point where I thought the first book should end, I asked my wife, who is an avid reader, literature teacher, and professional editor, to read parts. 

She was kind but truthful.  My descriptions were boring, and my characters all sounded like me! I thought about giving up but couldn’t, so I began to learn how to write. My wife helped me understand what I needed in those early days. Then I also began listening to other authors, publishers, and editors, and even took some classes. I started writing short stories just to help me give depth to the world and characters I was writing about.

A decade later, I was getting good feedback from friends and professionals. Another year of polishing my story and a publisher wanted to publish it! By the time this article is published, my book should be on sale. Though living without a mind’s eye, I absolutely could and did write a fantasy novel.

2 Key Things I Learned on How to Write Vividly Without a Mind’s Eye

The Aphantasia Network sponsored an “Extreme Imagiantion” convention a few years back. It was amazing because, even though it is known that a large proportion of aphants go into STEM careers, many of the aphants who gave presentations were artists! I was especially impressed with one panel of artists, some of whom were aphants, some of whom were not. 

The panel described how they make their art, and it was so interesting to learn how they do the same thing in very different ways. The aphants could not do what the visualizers did: imagine in their minds what they wanted to make and then put it on paper or whatever medium they were using. The aphants developed different strategies. Some used pictures or models to look at, from which they reproduced what they saw, making adjustments to get what they wanted. Other aphants just started drawing, erasing, and trying again until they finally got what they wanted. Then I heard about Glen Keane. He was one of the artists involved in the animated movie The Little Mermaid, and he was an aphant!

I had to wonder, if artists with aphantasia could find ways to draw like that, then why couldn’t I learn to describe fantastic worlds and people? But how was I to describe scenes I could not see? Could I learn to write vividly without a mind’s eye?

1. Write What You Know… Even if You Can’t Visualize It

The first key for me was to realize that even though I could not create an image of anything in my mind, I still knew what things looked like. How could I know what something looks like when I cannot see it in my mind? How can I recognize people I know when I can’t see them in my mind? It’s hard to describe, especially to someone who can see these things. Some of my aphant friends just began throwing around a phrase because we didn’t know how to describe it: “I just know!”

I am no neuroscientist, but one analogy that helped me was that we can recognize and describe things, so the data must be stored in our minds. Like ‘blue eyes,’ etc. 

Perhaps it is something like how a computer or digital camera stores pictures. It does not store an image; it stores data that describes each point in the picture. When you open a picture on your computer or phone, the chips and software translate that data into points of light, which, when put together, shows a picture on your screen. Aphants have the data; we just can’t show it on the screen of our mind’s eye. We may not even have the screen to show it on. Regardless, we have the data and know what something looks like.

When I read a description in a fantasy novel, do I see the image in my mind? No, but I do know what it would look like if I could see it. If I know how it looks, I can describe it.

2. Read, Read, Read!

Another important thing for me in learning to write good descriptive passages was to do a lot of reading myself. Doing that helped me to develop the vocabulary of description. In my current book, I have had editors and other publishing professionals say some really amazing things about my descriptions. So it must have worked!

This article isn’t really only about me, though. I am just one example of many. If I have learned anything in my interactions with other aphants, it is that we are not all exactly alike. We are all different. But I have also learned, in my interactions with my visualizer wife and others in my family and friends, that not all visualizers are the same either. There is an amazing spectrum from total (all senses) aphantasia to hyperphantasia. All of us are different. We all have our own unique set of gifts!

How Can We All Maximize Our Unique Abilities?

How should someone with or without a mind’s eye decide what kind of vocation or avocation to pursue? The same way we have through all of history. For some, our options may be limited; understand yourself well enough and make the most of them. If your options are more expansive,  discover what you love and find a way to use your strengths and weaknesses to work in your favor.

When I was returning to school and had to declare a major, I knew that I loved philosophy. I also knew that philosophy was not the most lucrative way to go. Many told me I should go into something like psychology, where my financial prospects would be better. In the end, I couldn’t help it. I chose philosophy, and I have NEVER regretted it. It all depends on what is important to you.

However, choosing a major in college is not the end of the process. We all grow and develop over time, and we can learn new skills along the way. I would identify four different careers in my life, and now, though retired, I am beginning a fifth as a writer.

One last application of all this. I am the most blessed husband on the face of the earth. My late wife and I went through many trials and many wonderful times together. She was a visualizer; I was not. Anecdotally, that kind of pairing seems to be common. But we talked a lot. We shared everything together. We got to know each other by sharing our differences and our similarities. We didn’t always fully understand how we were different, but we were always completely open about how we felt and about what we thought, and we came to understand each other so deeply that when she died, I quite literally felt like I didn’t know who I was without her. 

I am still learning. I would not trade our 43 years together for anything in the world. Though I am now alone, I am a better man and a happier man than I would ever have been without her, and I am beginning to learn that I am still the same, though improved, man that I always was.

For any of you who have recently discovered you have aphantasia, or even if you have known it for some time, don’t feel that you are missing anything. Explore your experience. Get to know how you think and experience. Share that with friends, family, and especially with a spouse or partner if you have one. Life for all of us can be so deep and fulfilling!

With or Without a Mind’s Eye, We Are Human and Unique

We may all be different but do not miss the fact that despite all the differences, we all have the same basic humanity. Having a mind’s eye or not doesn’t make you more or less human; it makes you a unique human, and so you have a unique way you can give to the world.

I give to the world by writing fantasy without a mind’s eye, illustrating that creativity isn’t confined to visual imagination. By sharing my journey, I hope to inspire others like me to discover and embrace their own distinctive ways of crafting stories, proving that the essence of creativity lies in the diversity of thought, not just in the ability to visualize.

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