Overcoming Aphantasia to Become a Better Writer
How I Envisioned Being a Writer Would Be and Why I Never Allowed Myself the Opportunity to Start
The gloomy mid-afternoon weather seeps through the openings in the horizontal blinds into my tiny space. Rain drops outside the window race down to the finish line of a ledge. Drops combine with one another to take the lead. Homemade hazelnut cold brew coffee rests on the side table. Just beneath the window, long vines of green plants stretch toward the floor, adding color to my otherwise black and grey living room.
Adjacent from the window is a grey Ikea style lounge chair with a plethora of unnecessary pillows and throw blankets. Somehow, I manage to nest myself in a seemingly uncomfortable position to fit within the confines of the throw accessories. The radiant aesthetic of my domain coupled with white noise of soft rain creates an ambiance of creativity.
Ideas dart at me nonstop as I race to jot them all down before they vanish. My fingers barely type fast enough to fully capture all the details my imagination throws my way. Dressed in my eyeglasses, messy hair bun and comfortable loungewear, I am prepared to conquer the world with my never before told stories. With my laptop set to dark mode and resting on my upper left thigh, it’s time to bring my ideas to life. The only problem in my perfect bubble is not knowing which topic on my list to write about first.
As times passes me by, the topic list grows twice as fast as topics can be marked completed. With the world beyond my living room faded away, the alluring silence propels me even deeper down a rabbit hole of fantasies just waiting to erect.
Every time I sit in my chair, the ideas start flowing and never stop.
Well, wouldn't that be nice.
My environment wasn't the issue.
What a beautiful scene of lounging in an immaculately built space for writing creativity. This is how I’ve always envisioned someone to become a prolific writer. That is begins with the perfect environment.
This is a philosophy I live by with everything in my life. To be successful in school I would require the ideal distraction-free environment. Reading books would be an all or nothing event. Either I’d concentrate for hours or I couldn’t get past the first line. Most things in my life are an all or nothing approach. If I cannot envision myself completing something in long stretches in a perfect setting, I tend to not even start.
Somehow my environment was never good enough to inspire long-term creative thought. Now, I understand how unrealistic this was and how this excuse was blocking the identification of my real issue. This is part of I never wrote recreationally, until now.
I've been told numerous times that I'd make a great writer based on the strength of my academic writing. I never believed that was enough to become a prolific writer, though.
To be a writer, you need to have an imagination. My true issue: I never believed I had an imagination for one single reason.
I never had imaginary friends, nor did I make up stories as a child. Creating something artistic was out of the question. What truly made me believe I didn’t have an imagination or creativity was that I cannot see images in my head.
Blind in the mind.
I thought this was normal until I discovered the majority of individuals can close their eyes and envision something.
If you ask me to close my eyes and picture my mother’s face, I cannot do it. I can describe to you what she looks like to the smallest detail, but I cannot generate an image of her in my mind. Last year I learned this phenomenon has a name. Aphantasia, better known as “blind in the mind” or a faulty "mind's eye."
How could I ever create a story that invokes passion and imagination in readers if I cannot see the setting in my own mind? If my creativity and imagination were broken, or even nonexistent? This is precisely why I never allowed myself the opportunity to prove myself wrong.
Left sided brain to the rescue.
Please note that whether you are left-brained or right-brained, neither makes you more susceptible to aphantasia. Me being left-brained did not make me struggle with aphantasia. My sister is right-brained and also struggles with aphantasia.
Ironically, I have resorted to my strength to tackle this problem: my left sided brain. Science, math, logic, and reason have ruled my life. This is the last thing I thought could help me because a left-brain was the enemy of creativity, so I thought.
Turns out describing the smallest details is essential to the responsibilities of a left-brained chemistry major. Spending years in wet labs where I worked with hazardous chemicals taught me to be precise and descriptive about what stood before my eyes. That was easy because I did not have to imagine it. It already existed and was directly in front of me.
I could describe why the acid during titration turned the purple solution into a bright pink color through neutralization. So, I took it a step further to illustrate how the events transpired using colorful words.
If I could put it in front of my eyes, I could bring it to life with words. This was the loophole.
This is how I would overcome my aphantasia to become a writer.
Finding your example.
When I want to create a scenery with my words, I find a way to look at an example that already exists. Observing how the sunlight bounces off real green tree leaves that dance in the wind gives me starting point. Referring to online photos to depict small details help bridge the gaps in my mind.
The key is to find something to observe and dissect.
I jot down parts of the setting to forge into a new scene. The weather, furniture, plants, colors, passion and how my body fit into that environment is what I wanted to portray at the beginning of this piece.
After isolating what I want readers to see, I create a basic sentence for each piece of the scene.
"It was rainy outside."
"I sat on the couch and typed."
"There were green plants near the window."
"I spent a long time writing and came up with a lot of ideas."
These are facts that I can tangibly see and describe because they already exist. Then I edit and reedit the wording until it becomes something with a desirably musical flow. I repeat this until it creates the scene where readers feel like they too are in a gloomy living room, lost for time as they are absorbed in an all-consuming passion.
Adjusting to new practices.
Patience and process are new pals of mine that I never needed in my academic writing. Words would flow naturally from my fingertips when tackling a fact-based scientific research paper on cardiovascular diseases. I had to accept that this wouldn’t be my reality as I shifted toward writing creatively.
Learning to become patient with myself when I cannot paint the image on the first, second, or even twentieth attempt. Allowing myself to go through the revision process as many times as I need without becoming frustrated with a temporarily stagnant development. Relying on resources such as an image or thesaurus to take my phrases to a new level. Having outside people read my work to see if I'm successfully creating the scene. These are all new additions to my writing toolkit that have helped me evolve into a more successful writer, despite struggles with aphantasia.
The creativity lives on.
The lesson learned was that I never lacked creativity. That my imagination was never broken. I am a wildly creative person. What I lacked was the understanding that my approach to writing would look different. That poetic descriptions of majestic kingdoms built upon green cliff-sides wouldn’t simply flow out of me as it does for strong fiction writers (not to say they don't go through their own lengthy revision processes, too). That I require a tangible approach to overcome aphantasia.
This approach may look different for each person who struggles with aphantasia, but it does not make creative writing impossible.