Where I spray-paint my thoughts…



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.


9 thoughts on “Blindfolded

  1. I participated in a psychology study when I was an undergraduate where I supposedly witnessed a “crime” – I was sitting in the office, waiting for the researcher, when someone came in, picked up a purse, and left. I thought nothing of it whatsoever and was quite startled to be informed that I had just witnessed a (not very realistic or convincing) enactment of a purse-snatching.

    I proved to be totally incapable of accurately describing the thief in any particular. Maybe not quite as extreme as your case – but almost.

  2. I feel for you, I really do. However, I have the opposite handicap (and I daresay so does George Lucas). If you asked me to describe a scene in a heist movie script I could set one that would knock your socks off. I could identify the thief and tell you exactly what he was wearing and why. But if you asked me to script a believable dialogue between that thief and the impossibly built female who owns the jewels the thief has in his hand. Well, it would be as cardboard as the box your chow mein came in.

    If we could help each other, it would be interesting to have you discuss where your ear naturally picks up dialogue. Do you eavesdrop at dinner parties? What kind of exercises would you suggest to those of us aurally challenged? Are there rhythms and patterns in conversation that we could learn to listen for (and then use)?

  3. There might be hope for you. If you were really that visually unaware, how would you know how you compare to others? Hmmm… maybe there’s a shred of awareness there; a seed you can sow.

    Many people have difficulties with details around them, especially when they aren’t required to study them. And faces… this is worse when you aren’t good with names. My wife has difficulty seeing differences in actors. She mixes up Steve Buscemi and Joe Pantolanio, Matthew Broderick and Jon Cryer, Denzel Washington and Halle Barry. (Check them out…) But, like you, she can remember who said what thirty years ago, when she bought something and for how much, and what her second grade substitute teacher’s name was.

    Perhaps, when it matters or just for kicks, you can say aloud what you see. Actually commentate your surroundings (did I use that word correctly?). Describe them as if you were describing them to a blind person. “Directly in front of you is an ornate fireplace, bearing the wears of time; its red bricks are chipped and the mortar partially crumbled. To the left is a plastic crucifix with dried palm leaves tucked behind. The crucifix is white with golden trim. The wall is a sandy brown….” These oral notes will etch in your auditory memory and will provide the foundation for stretching your visual descriptions later. Even if you never use this particular room, you will be exercising.

    … or, I’m full of crap. 🙂 Either way, it would be entertaining for someone watching you talk to yourself!

  4. Steve’s comments make sense to me. I could expand on them a bit. if it helps, carry a digital voice recorder (those microtape ones are passe) and dictate to yourself descriptions of places you visit. Anywhere that a scene could take place. From the mundane (bus station) to the magnificent (a cathedral). Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to detail everything. If it helps, think of your dictation as a listing. Follow a set format if you like: What kind of space or room are you in? What is it for? Is it large or small? Is it well lit, or dark? Are there people or objects in it? As you become more comfortable, go on by adding more detail and impressions to your dictation.

    (A) I am in a bus station. It is a small one. There are no buses. There are no people. It’s dark.

    (B) I am at a bus station. I am standing in a covered area where the buses park. There are no walls on three sides; just pillars to support the roof. There are parking spaces to accommodate a half-dozen buses.

    There are no buses at the moment. The schedule on the wall reads that I have just missed the bus to Albany.

    There is one woman waiting inside the station. There are glass doors so I can see her seated on a padded bench. She is knitting. She has long dark hair, but her head is mostly covered by a kerchief.

    The pavement is lit by lights on the ceiling and during the day, by light from the outside. Right now it is early evening and it is not well lit at all.

  5. Listening to the three of you – this is brilliant stuff. Is this how one “workshops?”

    I love that idea about explaining a scene to a blind person. I can see how it would be hard to put yourself into another time, or someone else’s experience. You’ve really got to talk out what you’re seeing, smelling, sensing, hearing…living.

    It’s hard enough trying to explain actual events, let alone putting yourself into a completely foreign environment. I’m in awe of you all.

  6. I must have the same affliction. For starters, I would get the two women in the pictures you posted mixed up. I once walked by my next door neighbour outside the Avondale store and completely ignored him, because…well, he wasn’t on his front lawn, and out of that context I had no idea who he was. I also didn’t recognize a woman in line at McDonalds, who I realized minutes later was the same woman I stand with at the bus stop each morning while we are waiting for our kids’ bus to come.

    Unfortunately, I cannot write dialogue OR descriptive scenes, so I’d say I’m pretty much screwed as a writer. Maybe I should just stick to limericks.

  7. Jamie – For the record, you are an excellent (and generous) editor. Which is to say, you can identify what’s good and what isn’t when it comes to dialogue and exposition. The process takes all kinds of people and I very much appreciate your feedback on my writing over the years.

  8. Thanks for the comments, everyone, and also for the great suggestions. I am really going to try to work on this.

    Jamie, the fact that you and I have the same visual issues only proves that the shared brain is lacking in some key areas. But it’s so very very verbal!!

    Allan, I agree George Lucas probably shares your problem! I don’t have any great tips for dialogue (I do eavesdrop a lot) but here is a blog post on that subject from a much better writer-blogger than I:


  9. I added her blog to my Google Reader. Good stuff!

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