Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Struggles of a Non-Visual Writer

I spent most of my life collecting images. I have boxes full of faded magazine clippings and expired calendars. I'd always been fascinated by color, shape and contrast. I even spent time as a studio-dwelling art major in university.

You can imagine my shock to learn that I'm not, in fact, a 'visual person'.

We have many senses - hearing, taste, smell, touch. Apparently, you can determine a person's predominant senses simply by the language they use. Just ask someone to describe their favorite holiday, and if you listen closely you'll begin to notice if they speak about it in terms of what they saw, what they heard, what they tasted, and so on. Key words relating to each of the senses will crop up every time.

Someone tried this exercise with me, and while I described the smell, and feel and sound of a village in the south of France, I used a surprisingly few number of visual cues. I know from photographs that the sky was blue, and the tree blossoms were pale pink and there were bright yellow dandelions everywhere, and an incredible natural waterfall in the middle of the town. But that's not what I talked about. I talked about birdsong, and the taste of the fresh goat's milk and the feel of the spring sunshine on my skin.

But how can an art major 'flunk' at being a visual person?!

Thinking back, I can see now that I never was able to draw anything straight out of my head. I always needed a model. It's the internal visual sense that I lack. And my continued attraction to external visual things is likely a way of compensating for my lack of 'inner eye'.

So what does this have to do with writing?

The writer is the eyes of the reader. The writer looks around that internal landscape and paints the reader a picture. That descriptive function is vital for building a sense of place, mood and context. So what happens if you're not all that hot on the visual stuff? How is your reader going to 'see' if you can't? Is all lost? Do I just quit now and go back to my scrapbooks?

Not necessarily.

Just because you're a non-visual writer, doesn't mean you'll be bad at description. Quite possibly the opposite, in fact.

Think of all the other senses you can activate in your writing! Instead of just relying on visual cues, you're giving your reader the tastes, smells, and sounds. When you do focus on what things look like, you will likely need to take your time and really force yourself to look around internally. All this makes the work richer and builds a deeper sense of setting and place

Like anything else, you can work on strengthening your visual sense. Visit locations and take photos and notes. What do you actually see if you look closely? Not what you think you see, but what is truly there.


Guess what? Not all readers are visual readers. Maybe they like to smell, taste, and touch their stories too! And if you're non-visual as a writer, your tendency to overcompensate and try harder to fill your descriptions with visual cues will thrill those less-visual readers too.

I should know. I'm one of them.

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