Sometimes I think I go through the world blindfolded.
I am, without exception, the least visually-aware person I have ever met. (Well, my own mother, who has difficulty distinguishing the species of stuffed animals, might be a runner-up in some departments, but she’s very acute in others — recognizing people’s faces, for example). My worst nightmare is that someday I will be the only eyewitness to a crime and will be called upon to describe what the perpetrator looked like, what he was wearing, the colour of the getaway car, the position of the victim’s body — or, really, anything about the crime scene that could be observed by any normal human being with a pair of eyes. If that ever happens, I will make such a mess of the whole testimony I will probably be assumed to be an accomplice wilfully muddying the waters, and the whole thing will end with me being arrested.
If I have a half-hour conversation with you, I will not be able to tell anyone five minutes later what you were wearing, how you wore your hair, or whether you had glasses on. If you’re very lucky and I already know you well, I might recognized you on the street an hour later. But possibly not. I could fill this entire blog with stories of my horrible anxiety whenever I meet someone I vaguely recognize but can’t place. Usually they’re people I should be able to recognize perfectly well, but I either mix them up with someone else, or can’t figure out who they are at all.
If I’m caught out in this situation (i.e., if I can’t pull of my usual schtick of cheerfully carrying on a conversation with no names or identifying information until the person finally gives me enough clues to identify them), I try to pass it off by saying I’m bad with names. This is SO not true. I am fabulous with names. If a dear college friend from 20 years ago were to email me and say, “Who was that guy my roommate dated for three weeks during sophomore year, the one with the gerbil?” I would promptly reply, “Oh, you mean Karl Sneidelbaum??” (imaginary example) and I would be right!! My memory for names, numbers, anything I’ve ever heard, is flawless. But if the same dear college friend were to come to my front door, I’d probably think she was the mother of one of my students whom I’ve met twice, or something.
For example, I still think my former family doctor and my former thesis supervisor, both of whom I’ve known for years, are identical twins, and can’t tell which is which when I meet them out of context, even though to normal, more visually-aware people, the two women look nothing alike. Check their pictures below for evidence of how bad I am — yes, they’re both blondish, but otherwise, would you mix these two women up? Of course you wouldn’t, because you are a normal human being.
I’m blown away by people who remember vividly what they were wearing at a crucial moment in their lives, or the exact decor and furnishings of a room they once visited. I float through the world as if blindfolded, unable to describe anything I’ve ever seen. My memory is almost entirely auditory, and this causes some problems for me as a writer.
Writers are supposed to have a keen eye and be observant about details. Particularly, someone who writes historical fiction as I do, should be able to paint word-pictures and vividly bring a distant place and time to life with brilliant descriptive details. This is so hard as to be nearly impossible for me. If I can’t describe to you the room I lived in for three years in college, how can I possibly describe the harem at Susa, or a street in eighteenth-century Dublin, or the scriptorium of the monastery at Lindisfarne in the 700’s?
Both my memory and my imagination are almost entirely auditory. I can recall verbatim large chunks of conversations I had — or overheard — years ago. I’ve always been told that I write dialogue well and I think this is my real strength as a writer. I can hear people talking in my head with no difficulty. But tell you what those people look like, or describe the room they’re sitting in? That’s really, really hard for me.
My manuscripts often come back from editors with the notation that I need to describe people and places more. I’m so impressed by writers, particularly historical fiction writers, who can do this well — and most can! I was just reading Marek Halter’s Lilah, the opening chapters of which are set in very much the same place and time as my novel Esther: A Story of Courage, and I was in awe of how vividly the streets of that city came to life in just a few sentences. When he described it, I could see it far more clearly than I ever could when I was writing it myself.
It’s really a crippling handicap. All I can do is write the story the way I write it — which is mainly, the way I hear it — and then go back, do my research, and drop in little visual descriptions here and there like chocolate chips in a cookie. When I’ve done this, the descriptions never seem integral to the story to me — they feel tacked-on and awkwardly done. I’m describing something I can’t really see, trying to paint a picture that doesn’t actually exist in my mind.
I just got the happy news that the publisher that has handled my other inspirational books is interested in my next work of Biblical fiction — the editor read the sample chapters I sent off last night and emailed me today saying she wants to see the full manuscript as soon as possible. Which is fabulous, except that now I have to write the full manuscript … and once again, I have to try to bring the setting to life with only the vaguest sense of what the reader should be seeing. I don’t know any particular way around this shortcoming except to keep doing what I’m doing … but I wish my brain was wired differently. I wish I could see details as well as hear them, so that I could write for the eye as well as the ear and feel that it flowed naturally with the story. I just don’t know how to do that.