How to Write with Aphantasia

Dustin Grinnell

“If you can’t visualize mentally, how can you write?” As a writer with aphantasia, Dustin Grinnell is faced with this question often. It’s not an easy one to answer. From his perspective, a writer with a blind mind’s eye writes by patchwork, using a myriad of sources and collected ideas to build something original.

At a recent company retreat, the leader of our team-building workshop asked everyone to close their eyes and visualize where they would be in five years.

My colleagues shared their visualizations with the group. They would have lost weight, become better mangers, worked out more.

I said I was writing at a desk in a small beach cottage. “But I don’t actually ‘see’ the cottage,” I told the group. “I don’t have a mind’s eye. It’s called aphantasia.”

There was some confusion. One colleague asked, “How can you write without seeing images in your head?”

As much as I had written about aphantasia—a condition that affects 2 percent of the population—for New Scientist, I didn’t have an answer. Until now.

Write by patchwork

In the seventeenth century, Richard Burton, a reclusive clergyman and scholar at the University of Oxford, wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy, a massive medical textbook that surveyed the causes and cures of melancholy.

Charles Rosen wrote in “The Anatomy Lesson” that Burton called his masterpiece a “centro,” a patchwork garment, a composition formed by joining scraps from other books. “Like a bee, he has fathered honey out of many flowers.”

This is a great description of how I write. From my perspective, a writer without a mind’s eye writes by patchwork, using multiple sources and collected ideas and concepts to build something original.

Find a subject you’re passionate about

Any writing project of mine begins with passion. No matter what subject or genre is tackled, writing takes time and effort, so I advise people to choose a topic they’re passionate about. This will make reading and writing a source of pleasure.

What topic could you research and write about that would be a labor of love? Make a list of answers to these questions:

  • What topics or subjects interest you most?
  • What genre most interests you? Memoir? Poetry? Journalism? Fiction? Do you want to write a movie?
  • If fiction, do you like thrillers or romances? The short story or the novel?
  • If your story appeared on the cover of a magazine, what would the title be? The subtitle? The artwork?

Ultimately, you want to write something that you would love to read. What’s not being written about that you think should be?

Fill the well with multiple references

Though it may not be true for all writers, this aphantasic writer needs input and reference materials from which to draw. Many ideas come to me as I’m reading, watching movies and documentaries, or conversing with other people.

To get started on a writing project, you want to become an idea collector. Use Google to find articles, books, movies, and documentaries that relate to your topic. Librarians can also help you refine and assist you in accessing articles and books.  

For me, the process of filling the well is enjoyable. I print out articles relevant to my subject and put them in a binder. As I read, I feel like an explorer, a treasure hunter on the quest for relevant ideas.

To find reference material, use some of the following questions as a guide:

  • When you think about your topic, what nonfiction books come to mind? Novels? Movies?
  • Most people are eager to tell their stories. Who could you interview to get more perspective on your subject? Go online and make a list of experts.
  • Where’s your local library? Why aren’t you there right now?

As I read the reference material, I underline sentences and passages and pull useful quotes into a note-taking software (we’ll talk about Evernote later). Throughout this process, I also capture information about the sources of the quotes (titles and, if relevant, page numbers or web addresses). I feel a sense of progress as I finish a book or an article.

Allow ideas to percolate while you’re absorbed in research

As I’m doing research, focusing and absorbing information, ideas pop into my head. An abstract idea will just hijack my attention. My eyes will dart off the page, and I will defocus. At these times, I usually set down the book or pause what I’m watching.

Usually, the idea is a fully formed sentence that I type into my phone’s note-taking software. It could also be a way to restructure a piece or organize information. Sometimes, it’s unrelated to the current project. Either way, the idea isn’t an image or a sound. It just has a quality of “thereness.”

Typically, the idea is a connection. It originates in the associative areas of my brain and then is propelled into my conscious awareness. It’s as if there were archers in the backs and sides my brain lobbing arrows toward the front of my brain. Once an arrow hits the prefrontal cortex—bang!—I’m consciously aware of it. I think saturating my attention with information allows the more associative areas to go to work.

After maybe fifteen minutes of this, my mind is buzzing. On fire. Associating, connecting. The archers are shooting from all directions. The ideas are intrusive. I’m constantly being interrupted, perhaps every few minutes, to record a new association. In this early stage, it’s important to just capture the ideas, not judge them.

In this relaxed, disinhibited mental state, I’m letting ideas into my mind without evaluation. This uncritical, nondiscriminatory mindset can lead to wrong turns in the eventual writing product—tangents and colorful anecdotes—but it can also produce original connections. The time for judgment comes later.

Create the relaxed conditions for ideas to visit you

I don’t think this kind of research work should be done while sitting at a computer screen. The mental state when you’re at your desk is often critical and nonreceptive. It scares off the muses.

For me, the necessary mental state is achieved when I’m relaxed, reading alone on my couch, on a weeknight or Sunday morning. I have no responsibilities and nothing to do. This kind of carefree attitude is fertile ground for ideas. While I’m reading and writing, I stay focused inward, almost monitoring my own mind, ready to pounce when an arrow strikes.

My mind also loosens up while I’m exercising, particularly while I’m engaged in aerobic exercises like running and walking. Many writers have found walking to be particularly fruitful. Biographers wrote that Nietzsche went for long walks around the Swiss Alps and furiously wrote all his ideas into his notebook.

Use a note-taking program to capture and work on your ideas

You need a place to store your ideas and connections. I use a note-taking software called Evernote, which I can access on my phone and work and home computers. This allows me to capture every tumbleweed that rolls through my brain. Evernote is my brain, externalized.

The almost four hundred notes I currently have are grouped into folders and contain ideas, fleshed out or otherwise, for both fiction and nonfiction projects. At various times during the day or night, I will dip into the note over a period of days, months, or even years. I pick away at them. I add links, quotes from movies or books, and ideas I have while driving or exercising. By working these ideas into outlines with numbered paragraphs and headings, I exert control over the material and become confident that I can make a story out of it.

With this approach, a writing product ends up being a collection of words, phrases, or sentences that have popped into the writer’s head over a certain period of time. This process of collecting ideas may take weeks, months, or even years. Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park, said it took twenty years to write Sphere because he didn’t have an ending.

Begin the actual “writing”

When I think I’ve collected what I need, I feel a sense that I need to begin. So I drag my notes into a Word document and build a detailed outline. There, I listen to where the material wants to go and try to establish a narrative logic. I’m always asking:

  • “What’s the story?”
  • “What’s most compelling about your material?”
  • “Who cares?”

I return to this document repeatedly to shuffle sentences around and improvise new ones. It’s always a question of what to leave in and what to leave out. This part of the writing process is a bit like sculpting. I add a little material here, chip off some material there. Instead of clay though, I’m using concepts as the raw material.

The story becomes an organic, living, breathing animal. Sentences are copied and pasted into different sections. Titles and subheadings are changed. The process is abstract and nonvisual. I’m trying to combine ideas in interesting ways, or engage in “combinatorial play,” as Einstein put it.

It could also be compared to how Charles Rosen described Burton’s writing style. “A style that studied and followed the movement of the mind in its least constrained form, liberating associations as his sentences change pace, hurdle forward, and swerve so often in the middle of an argument.”

Arrange everything around your central idea

As I’m working on the writing piece, I try to develop a one-line statement that represents what the piece is about. I sometimes have to go through several drafts before I understand the story’s core idea.

When you think about your own writing, consider these questions:

  • Can you sum up your writing project in one or two sentences?
  • What’s your thesis statement?
  • Can you develop a short synopsis of your idea?

Once you know what you’re writing about, you can better understand what to put in and what to leave out. This is called “killing your darlings.” You want to remove what isn’t relevant to your project’s core. In early drafts, I find that I repeat myself a lot and weigh down projects with excess material. I just take it all out at the end.

Store these killed darlings in an “outtakes” Word document. By the end of a writing project, my outtakes document usually contains many perfectly crafted sentences, original thoughts, and colorful anecdotes. This document has a useful psychologically effect. It’s a repository of ideas that you know don’t fit, yet because they’re not gone forever, you feel like you can still use them someday.

Put the work on ice and then return with a vengeance

After you’ve beaten up the project a lot, you want to let it sit for a while. Stephen King calls this “the ice box.” It allows the material to percolate in your mind. Try to forget about the project. The best way to do this is to start another project. Often, while I’m working on this new project, I will have ideas about the one on ice. I record these ideas in Evernote and work on them periodically.

After the project comes out of the ice box, I return to it in full editing mode. At this point, I’m quite cruel to my work. I take out anything that doesn’t belong. I fiddle with every sentence. I “omit needless words,” as per Elements of Style. I remove clichés. I like to be at a computer for this part of the process. I like to be locked in and willing to remove anything that isn’t relevant to the thesis.

Expose your writing piece to an objective reader

Once you have built a first draft, you will have lost objectivity, so you want to seek out unbiased feedback, ideally from a professional editor. If you don’t know of one, ask a writer friend or use freelancing websites like Upwork.com.

A good editor will help you check facts and tighten-up your sentences, but they can also help you clarify your thinking and urge you to expand or remove in appropriate places. They can help by pointing out holes in your story, revealing flaws in your logic, refining, or in some cases finding, what the story is really about.

A great editor is also a coach. They push you to do your best work. They keep you going back to a story or sentence to improve it. They may suggest switching points of view, interviewing another source, or dropping thousands of words and starting a piece 75 percent of the way into the story. Find an editor who can firmly, and yet gracefully, encourage you to try again.

Develop the capacity to tolerate uncertainty

After the visualization exercise at my company’s retreat, we all shared personal and professional goals with our colleagues. One project manager said she wanted to learn to better tolerate ambiguity.  

Getting to creative solutions takes discipline, hard work, research, feedback, and iteration, but it also takes what the poet John Keats called “negative capability,” the ability to accept, even embrace, uncertainty as you’re researching and writing.

You need to develop the faith that even though you may not know where a writing project is going, you will always get to the end, even if only through sheer will and imagination.

Dustin's sci-fi novel, Without Limits, was included in the "Inside the Mind’s Eye” art exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, England.
Dustin led a creative writing workshop at the Extreme Imagination Conference at Exeter University in 2019.
Dustin Grinnell

Dustin Grinnell

Dustin Grinnell is the author of The Genius Dilemma and Without Limits. His nonfiction has appeared in The LA Review of Books, The Boston Globe, VICE, and Writer's Digest.
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