Creative Visualisation: Being There by Catherine Czerkawska

Been spending a lot of time with this lady!
There has been a great deal in the news recently about something called ‘aphantasia’ or the inability to conjure up images inside your head. You can read all about it on the BBC Website here.

There is a whole spectrum of abilities, and people at one end of it can’t do it at all. I was intrigued to note that the late great Oliver Sachs was ‘face blind’ so that when shown, for example, a photograph of Oprah Winfrey, he had no idea who she was. Well, maybe not everyone does know who she is, but this was not a one off. A series of well known faces provoked a shrug and a shake of the head. There’s a whole section of the population who lead perfectly normal lives without being able to visualise things inside their heads. They know, they just can’t visually imagine.

It got me thinking, especially because I had just finished a draft of a rather complicated historical novel, so I was very much in creative writing mode. Most writers of fiction will know that alongside the perennial ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ question, (which makes a lot of sense to non-writers who are intrigued by it, but provokes a faint feeling of dismay in writers, who are generally drowning in unsolicited ideas), there’s the OTHER thing.

I used to think there was a gap but I think of it more as a yawning chasm between non-writers and writers in this respect, and now I know that the ability that creative writers tend to have in spades has a name: hyperphantasia. For most of us, it may be even more intense than that.

Let’s, for argument’s sake, call it super-hyperphantasia.

I suspect most writers of fiction are hyperphantasiacs (if that's even a word!) and if they aren’t, I’d lay bets they aren’t very good creative writers.

But the reports got me wondering if the scientists conducting this research have thought about ways in which writers and other creative people, artists for example, enter this state? To some extent you can summon it at will but I’m not entirely sure you can do it to somebody else’s specification. If you ask me to visualise pretty much anything, I will be able to see it quite clearly ‘in my mind’s eye’ – to the extent that I will be able to describe it for you. I have a strong visual imagination. Years as a playwright – where you always have to see what’s going to be happening and to whom, on stage or on film - have only reinforced it.

I once took part in an experiment in past life regression. It was intriguing, faintly disturbing, immensely vivid. I can still remember who I was, where I lived, how I was dressed, dozens of details. But I have a suspicion that the writer in me was simply inventing the character in response to a number of prompts from the person doing the regressing. Not that she gave me any of these details. She simply asked a series of questions. Where are you? How are you dressed? What are you doing? Where do you live? I knew all the answers, right down to the 'best' shoes that were almost too uncomfortable to wear. But this is exactly what I do when I'm writing.

I had a pair of shoes like this but only in my mind's eye.

I know that when the writing is going really well, it’s similarly intense and vivid. I’m truly elsewhere. I’m in the world of the book or story or play. Mihaly Csikszentmihalji called it a state of ‘flow’, and so it is. Time has no meaning. Then you suddenly come back into yourself and find that several hours have passed by and you have no remembrance of them. And that’s because your mind, your whole imagination has been somewhere else. The room may have grown dark or cold, and you’re hungry and thirsty, and often you feel quite ill and disorientated. Well, I certainly do.

You have been in the world of the book or story or play. You have been seeing it, feeling it, living it and experiencing the emotions of various characters – and for a while at least it doesn’t just feel as real as the ordinary world. It feels hyper real, a place beside which the ‘real world’ feels quite disappointing. You’ve been kind of playing God and sometimes you have the uneasy sense that we’re not really designed to do that. Which is why it takes its toll, why we feel so strange afterwards and so utterly bereft between projects.

Is it worth it? Well I think so. And if you can’t do it, you’ve no idea what you’re missing, literally, so you won’t mind. I’m not sure you can be taught how to do it, but I do think innate abilities can be honed and improved.

I’m often asked about dialogue. It’s hard to teach people how to write good dialogue. There are the usual hints and tips, such as reading it out loud, listening to what people say, how they really speak. But I think good dialogue only comes when you are in one of these states of being 'in the zone', because what you are then doing is not so much ‘making’ people say something as listening to your characters. Climbing inside their heads, overhearing them talk and writing it down – all at the same time. And it’s almost impossible to teach somebody how to do that if they can’t make that quantum leap into being there.

Somebody once said to me that the worlds inside her head were far more real, more vivid than the world outside. I’d identify with that. It doesn’t happen all the time, and I’m not at all sure it could be induced under controlled conditions. Writers of historical fiction have to do a lot of familiarising first, which is essentially what the research is for. It's like a secret agent being briefed before a mission. And then, armed with all that knowledge, you make the quantum leap into inner space.

Also, the experience is not without a few unwelcome side effects: rabid insomnia being one of them. The inner world has a habit of either invading your dreams – not so bad, because at least you’re sleeping - or prodding you awake several times a night, reminding you of its existence. Come back, it says.

And then your characters join in. 'We’re here. We have things to tell you. And no, we’re not going to shut up or go away until you give us the voices we think we deserve.'

If you want to sample a couple of my historical novels to see what happened when I made that leap into the past, you could try:
The Physic Garden
The Curiosity Cabinet
And look out for a new historical novel called The Jewel, to be published in 2016. 


Wendy H. Jones said…
What a fascinating insight. I agree, writers do enter another world and can visualize it perfectly. A brilliant post which I enjoyed
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Catherine, I recognise so much of this - the notion that time stops when you are in the zone and in the state of flow. And yet I think I must suffer from a certain degree of aphantasia. I don't SEE strong images - faces, places - very sharply and I find it difficult to describe the physical characteristics of my own characters because that's not how they live for me. I sometimes put in a cursory and, I have to confess, in some sense arbitrary description because I suddenly feel the reader might like a visual clue. There are a few exceptions, where physical characteristics really matter in the presentation of. There's one in Bright Sea Dark Graves, soon to be published on Kindle and Createspace. But for me, that character is a rarity. But don't worry. I'm firmly in my fictional world and it's just as vivid for me, though perhaps in a slightly different way. I carry this over into real life. I'm not as faceblind as Sachs but I find it hard to remember who people are up to the about the fourth time I meet them and I've sometimes carried on long and remarkably coherent conversations with people I'm convinced are someone else. Characters live for me in their words: I can hear them speak much more than I see them, and I build them up from there. I sometimes think I should have been a playwright!
Dennis Hamley said…
sorry - line 7 should read 'presentation of particular characters.'
Nick Green said…
I'm like you, Dennis - not a vivid visual imagination at all. I don't see character's faces, even in other people's books. I'm intrigued by those who say they 'see' images in their heads, and I long to ask, Catherine - do you really SEE them, or are you using a figure of speech?

I really see things in dreams, so vividly I have mistaken them for real life. But in waking imagination, no. They are ideas, words, concepts, but not images. Maybe it's like that for everyone, and some people just describe the experience more fancifully, saying they 'see' things when they don't really see them. I don't know. It's unknowable maybe.

But I've never been someone who cared much about what characters looked like. If it's significant that they're very tall or very small (for instance) then fine. But a high domed forehead? A heart-shaped face? Delicate comma-like eyebrows? Don't bother, I'll have forgotten in two pages.

And yes, I do have problems recognising real people too!
Susan Price said…
I can't speak for Catherine, Nick, but I do SEE my characters - and the places.

I don't care much about what other people's characters look like either, and I try to remember that readers probably don't care much about how mine look - but I do see mine, how they move, how they dress...

Somewhere in 'Ghost Drum,' I described how, when reading a book, the reader sees the events of the book as if they moved on a translucent screen between the reader's eyes and the words. At a talk, a member of the audience picked up on this, and said it described exactly her experience. The woman next to her said, no, she never 'saw' anything at all.

It was the first time I'd ever heard of this, and said, 'How can you ever enjoy a book?' Other members of the audience chimed in (the 'seers' seemed to far outnumber the non-seers. The discussion became quite heated, as the seers could not grasp how someone could not see things in their imagination. I ended by feeling quite sorry it had ever been brought up.

Catherine - I should have said this before: Wonderful post!
Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating as ever, Catherine. Like the others, I have the feelings you describe, the stepping outside of time to 'be' in those other places, inside those other people. It puts a different slant on the advice to 'write about what you know'. Can one 'know' the smell of a cloacal 19th century harbour at low tide? Or, as a product of our anything-goes times, truly relive the frisson of some indiscretion in a repressive society? As for describing the appearance of our characters, I'm with Stendhal, who said that he didn't know the colour of Julien Sorel's eyes (in Le Rouge et le Noir) because he was looking through them, not at them. Without trying to be precious or come over all Donald Rumsfeld, I think writers of fiction 'know' far more than they know.
(And, by the way, I'm sick of trying to identify things with oranges or popcorn in them simply to prove I'm who I say I am.)
Lydia Bennet said…
hm I'm having to think about this - I do vividly feel and believe in other worlds, either mine or other writers' if they really engage me. I certainly 'hear' dialogue from characters in my mind's ear. I think I see these fictional or recounted worlds sometimes like a film unfolding in front of me, and sometimes as if I'm there and part of it, but other times it's more like a feeling, empathy perhaps.
Kathleen Jones said…
Fascinating post Catherine. I'm one of those that can run things like a video in my head and see every detail clearly. As a child I was castigated, often, for having 'too vivid an imagination'! It's a blessing for a historical writer, but no one told me that at the time. I didn't realise it was a particular syndrome - hyperphantasia. Wish I'd known that at school!

Looking forward to your new book.
Lydia Bennet said…
yes just to add, delighted to hear another historical novel is due soon - I can personally recommend The Curiosity Cabinet and The Physic Garden, both cracking reads.
Mari Biella said…
This all sounds very familiar, Catherine. When I'm 'in the zone' I'm experiencing my fictional world to such an extent that it feels more real than the 'real' world. At those times, the writing flows. But there is a downside - I too have bouts of insomnia, not least because my characters demand a certain amount of attention. As you said, they demand that their story be told.
Nick Green said…
@Susan - fascinating. You've 'opened my eyes'. For me the extent of seeing is no more vivid than a memory. When I read (or, sometimes, write) it's like recalling a memory that never actually happened.

The Ghost World books are very vivid, visually, and I do remember picturing the huge door to the Ghost World very clearly, and the iron woods, and plenty of other places. (And blood. Lots of blood). But it never seemed as if eyes were involved... it was like somewhere I'd been, long ago. (But thankfully, I never have. I hope.)

AliB said…
Yes, Catherine's historical novels also recommended by me. And I think I get the whole 'being there' thing, maybe not quite as intensely but certainly to the extent of hearing dialogue in my head even in a historical context which makes it difficult when other people take exception to 'the voice'- sorry, that's what it is! I also have trouble separating my own fiction from reality and often forget that a person I'm thinking about is one I made up, not one that I've known in the 'real' world.But I suspect that's common for novelists who spend so much time with their characters.

AliB said…
Catherine has left a message on FB explaining she can't comment here but says:

"Can someone please comment on my behalf and say yes - I see everything as if I am there ! And no it isn't like a figure of speech. It's more real than reality!."
Enid Richemont said…
When I was writing my first adult novel, "COUNTERPOINT" (never published) I was writing by hand, and the words kept coming, and I was so totally somewhere else that, going on the Tube to a class in Kentish Town, I got off the train and on to the escalator without really knowing where I was. It's never been as intense for me again, and wish I could get some of that back. I've written other books (published) since then, where the characters were so alive that they had lives of their own, and feared for, or hated, them, but nothing ever as intense as that first novel. I'd love to get back there now.
Susan Price said…
Isn't this a fascinating topic? Thanks again, Catherine, for bringing it up.

About being able to visualise things - I've just been watching Pointless and it was very frustrating because they asked for the names of actors in Bladerunner. I could 'see' the faces of the actors who played the toymaker, the older robot woman, and the robot man who isn't Rutger Hauer... I could have given descriptions of them to the Police. Didn't know their names.

Another question was: what actress with the initial JS played 'Young Bess' in 1956. Answer - the same actress who played the slave-girl in Spartacus. Could see her, so plainly, in her Roman slave-girl costume, talking to Kirk Douglas. Jean Simmons! Could I remember her name? No.

Catherine also mentions the state of 'flow' where you forget time, hunger, cold. I've certainly experienced that with writing. I think it's a form of self-hypnosis - an altered state of mind.

I remember when I wrote in the house of a friend while she was at work. It often happened that, when she came home and put her key in the lock, I reacted with a truly violent start, throwing my hands in the air, leaping off my chair. It was a reaction out of all proportion to the tiny noise of the key. It's happened, too, when someone has pushed open the door of my room, while I'm working, to ask me something.

I did some research on hypnosis. Something that struck me was that, when you're in a hypnotic trance, you don't know it, you don't 'feel hypnotised.' The first thing most people say, I read, on being woken from their first experience of being hypnotised is, 'I wasn't hypnotised.' Or they assume that the attempt to hypnotise them was a failure when, it fact, it suceeded, and they may have been 'out' for 30 minutes. But being 'in an altered state of consciousness' doesn't feel any different from being awake. In a sense, hypnosis is increased concentration - the hypnotist directs your concentration.

Hypnotists wake people gradually, leading them back to their normal state but if someone is woken suddenly from a trance, then they react with shock, as if violently startled - which reminded me strongly of my reaction to the tiny click of a key in a lock, or of someone opening a door.

So, I suggest, when we're deeply involved in writing, and go on and on, for hours, ignoring everything else - we're actually in 'an altered state of mind.'
Brian said…
Really interesting post, and fascinating comments. I teach actors a process of finding their character. It's called Image Streaming. They close their eyes and start off by saying she or he looks like... and then start describing all the images that appear in their mind. It is the most extraordinary experience. People who know nothing about Russia at all describe Chekhovian characters as though they had lived in a dacha outside Moscow. More than that, they can describe smells and scenes in great detail. They are sometimes quite disturbed by the level of 'knowledge' that they seem to have.
In tandem with teaching them the techniques of acting, I started teaching them how to write their own speeches and plays, so that they could understand narrative structure. This led to further amazing discoveries and the development of a small workshop, facetiously entitled 'How to write like Shakespeare in one hour and forty five minutes (Guaranteed!)'. Subsequently I was asked to teach this to writers and am currently writing a book on they process. It is all about flow.
Brian said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said…
Sorry about the double post - on a train with varying reception.. Tried to delete it but I don't have the necessary permission.
Brian, that is absolutely fascinating. Just returning to this because I've been more or less offline for a few days. I think this technique of getting people to visualise is a really interesting one - and could benefit writers as well as actors. Playwrights have to 'see' what's going on on stage. If they can't, you get plays where somebody spends ten minutes dusting the furniture while two other characters have a bit of intense dialogue! Some of my most successful theatre sessions have been when a group of experienced actors 'workshopped' a play - and started to 'see' it - to pick it up and run with it in some instances. It's not that they wanted to change things, but that their contributions, in terms of their individual characters, proved invaluable to my overall vision of the play.

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