It took a while to realize I don’t think like most people. A really long while. It’s not something you talk about much—how your thoughts are actually processed. But in one of my book groups we somehow got on the topic of visualizing what you read, and I, along with one other person, said we didn’t actually visualize the scenes or characters at all. Which everyone else thought was weird. Before this conversation, I thought “seeing” scenes in a book was a metaphorical description, not a literal one. And it isn’t just connected to reading. I actually don’t ever “see” images in my mind. This condition only got a name this summer—aphantasia.
It’s really hard to describe how my imagination works. I often think in words, but not entirely. It’s like I’ve seen things out in the world and I can recall them without visualizing them or putting them into words. I can describe a cat to you without visualizing the cat in my mind. So I can think about things, and imagine them, and remember them, without visualizing them.
It’s the same with sounds and tastes and smells. I’ve experienced them, and can think about them and understand them when I’m not actually hearing/tasting/smelling them (I’m actually really good at identifying which celebrity is the voice behind ads), but I don’t re-experience the sensations in my imagination.
An acquaintance commented that aphantasia and writing seem like an unlikely match. It definitely explains why I’ve always been extremely envious of Stephen King—but I love him!--who has described writing like a window opening up in front of him and transcribing what he sees through that window. (I thought he was the weird—or unusual—one! Or that he was being metaphorical.) For me, reading something like this article by King is frustrating. And if I think about it too much, maddening. And probably if I thought about it too much, heartbreaking. (I’ve never felt a sense of loss over the ability to visualize or experience sensations in my imagination, because I’ve never had it. But I admit now that I'm reading more about the ability, it sounds unbelievably cool and I wish I could do it too. I’d love to really “see” my dad’s face again, or “hear” his voice. But I still remember his haw-haw-haw laugh and how he once missed a meeting at work because he wanted to watch one of his flowers bloom.)
Anyway, I don’t find my inability to visualize or recall sensations a handicap in my writing, because I actually do recall them, in my own way. I’ve tasted chocolate, and I don’t need to be actually tasting (in my imagination) to describe the taste.
Many times Roswell fans have asked how I felt about the characters in the TV show looking different than they do in the books. It doesn’t bother me at all. It might be because the models for the book covers were chosen while I was writing the first one, so I had to make my descriptions of them match. (In an early draft, Alex had red hair, and at one point Laura—who developed the series and was my editor—and I talked about having him be Native American.) Or it might be because I never actually "saw" them when I was writing.
But I think it’s more that the casting of the show felt so right. The emotions of Max and Liz came across so clearly in the scenes between Shiri Appleby and Jason Behr. Michael still felt like a guy with a mix of vulnerability and attitude; Alex like a guy with a mix of strength and geekiness; Maria offbeat and loving, and Isabelle both hard and soft. That’s what was important to me. I didn’t care how they looked.
Thinking about those books (while thinking about my own thinking), I’m struck by the scenes where the group, humans and aliens, connected with each other. It was a complete sense-o-rama. Each character had an aura color, each had a specific smell associated with them, a specific sound. They even zapped images to each other.
So even though I can’t imagine with all my senses, I still use them all when I write.
P.S. Hmmmm. Interesting that Sarah, the main character in our thriller Sanctuary Bay (coming to you in January 2016!) has extremely vivid memories of everything that's happened to her. She actually relives the emotions. It sounds like a superpower, but it's a real condition called HSAM, Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory.