I’ve had all kinds of fun conversations today. One was about perceived popularity. I’m going to write about that later, but right now I’ve gotten into the visualization conversation on Too, and I think it’s completely fascinating, so I’m going to talk about that instead.

I discovered about three years ago that people see pictures in their heads. When they read, when they listen to music, when they’re told stories, they get pictures in their heads.

I do not get pictures in my head. Not when I’m reading, not when I’m writing, not when I listen to music. I had *no idea* that people did. It was a stagger-worthy shock when I realized that Fantasia was based on the idea that people *saw stories in their heads* when they listened to all that music.

*No one* in my immediate family had any idea people did. Dad said he’d have taught many classes differently if he’d known that. I remembered a drama class visualization exercise where we were supposed to visualize we were lying on a white beach with the blue sky above, and palm trees and all that sort of thing, and it bent my brain to think that probably two thirds of the people in the class were *actually seeing that*.

They say to succeed at sports, you have to visualize the win. I had no idea they meant literally. Sure, I can talk myself through it, but actually *see* it? Buh. No.

Ted was astounded, because my writing makes clear pictures in his head, and he couldn’t imagine how I did that if *I* wasn’t seeing pictures in my head.

The answer is by working really, really hard.

The horse made more sense now, for some nebulous value of the word sense. It had been able to rear up because after it kicked me in the chest it had torn out the entire door structure, and part of the roof had fallen down. The rest of the roof was on fire. I wasn’t sure how that had happened, but it didn’t seem to bother the horse.

Horse is such a limited word. The beast in the diner had the grace and delicacy of an Arabian and the size of a Clydesdale, multiplied by two. It shimmered a watery grey, bordering on silver, the color so fluid I thought I might be able to dip my hand in it. Despite myself, my gaze jerked up to its forehead. There was no spiral horn sprouting there, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been. It was Plato’s horse, the ideal upon which all others are based.

It was trying to kill me, and all I could do was admire it.

Then it screamed, shrill and deep all at once. The blonde behind the counter shut up, but I screamed back, a sort of primal response without any thought behind it.

Just for a moment, everything stopped.

There was a rider astride the grey, arrested in motion by my scream. He wore grey himself, so close to the color of the horse I could barely tell where one ended and the other began. The reputed Native American belief that white men on horseback were one exotic creature suddenly seemed very plausible.

The rider turned his head slowly and looked at me. His hair was brown, peppered with starlight, and crackled with life, as if touching it would bring an electric shock. It swept back from a massively sharp widow’s peak, and was held in place by a circlet. His face was a pale narrow line, all high cheekbones and deep-set eyes and a long straight nose.

The impression he left was of living silver. I locked eyes with him, expecting to see that liquid silver again. Instead I met wild-fire green, a vicious, inhuman color, promising violence.

He smiled and reached out a hand, inviting me towards him. His mouth was beautiful, thin and expressive, the curve of teeth unnervingly sharp, like a predator’s. I pushed up the counter, using it to brace myself, and wet my lips. Marie was right. I was going to die. The rider wanted my soul and I was going to give it to him without a fight because of that smile and those inhuman eyes. I took a step towards him.

That scene, those paragraphs, took me about six hours to write. Not all at once, but going back and staring and thinking and crafting and working as hard as I could to get all the words right. The penultimate and antepenultimate paragraphs there took me about four hours of work alone. Remember that I write, on average, about a thousand words an hour. Description is *not easy* for me. And I find it utterly fascinating that apparently something like two thirds of people see pictures in their heads.

This clarified something that had been puzzling me for years, when I learned it. There’s a scene in EMILY CLIMBS, the second book of the Emily of New Moon series by L.M. Montgomery, in which Emily is talking to a man whose son has died. The man can’t remember what the boy looks like, because he isn’t like other people, and can’t bring images to mind.

My entire life, I had always thought that was a weird little scene. I mean, not like I spent nights awake because it actively bothered me, but it’s always bugged me a little. Like, what did that mean, bringing images to mind? Like people *did* that or something? *snort*

Me, I can’t hold an image in my head for more than an instant. Ted, otoh, can apparently call up a specific person or thing, hold the image in his mind, do a 3D rotate on it…bizarre beyond belief.

(At Writer’s Weekend a few years ago I put this question (“Do you visualize?”) to the 40 people in the room with me and . Every single one of them raised their hands. I said, “You all are *weird*,” and only realized when several people laughed and pointed out I was the oddball there that I was, er, well, the oddball. But being me, I persisted in thinking *they* were weird.)

So tell me: do you visualize? If so, can you do the 3D image thing? If you’re a writer, what happens in your head while you’re writing? Are there pictures? Do you keep images in your mind when you write them? If you visualize, do you like poetry? What *kind* of poetry?


  1. shadawyn

    I can, with much effort, visualize, but not generally, and not for terribly long.

    Things usually come to me in words. When people talking about seeing a scene in their head, it’s usually coming at me in sentences and paragraphs, like someone is talking to me.

    Paperback Writer talks about how she visualizes a scene from beginning to end (and, actually, said she does most of her planning by visualizing and holding it in her head, too), and I tried and tried, and I can’t do either. I’ve got to write it down. Not because I won’t remember it otherwise, but because that’s how it forms to me.

    Which is why I brainstorm better if I can write down what I’m thinking.


    Thanks, I suddenly make more sense to me now ;)

  2. shadowhwk

    What she didn’t mention is that I raised my hand too. And we wrote together at the time. No idea how that worked.

    Yes, I visualize. I can do the 3-d image rotate. I play movies in my mind when imagining scenes. Which is why I get very frustrated when I can’t convey the image onto the page.

    Temple jacks and downloadable thoughts, man. It’s the wave of the future.

  3. ghost_light

    I do visualize, and I am able to manipulate images in my head. My mom is not as good at it as I am, so she would always make me come in to “pre-see” what a room would look like before she started rearranging the furniture. That was my first hint that I was very good at visualizing and imagining things.

    When I wrote and when I played on Mushes or chats I was generally able to see what my characters looked like and the setting around them. As an actress, I make choices based on how I think the character should look, not just on my physical self. For example, one of my Ren Fair characters walks very differently than I do, I just think of her as being heavier and having a more rolling walk and I bring that out. Another character was hyper-nervous and I chewed at my fingers and fingernails the whole time I was on stage even though I cannot STAND nail-biting in my real life.

    I do like poetry, but I mostly read and remember writers like Shel Silverstein, Emily Dickenson and Siegfried Sassoon.

  4. jesshartley

    I write like I knit, weaving sentence by sentence, word by word, together. I can /somewhat/ visualize specific things… a gesture… a snapshot… a blow.. But I don’t see things mentally well in three dimensions (Pat has to draw things out for me when we’re talking about changes to the yard or the like, and it’s /magic/ for me when pieces of a pattern or three dimensional craft project actually change from 2-d to 3-d).

  5. das_uber

    do you visualize? If so, can you do the 3D image thing?

    Yes and yes. I had no idea that anyone didn’t do this. Wild. This is actually the main way that I figure out how something works and remember it.

  6. skeagsidhe

    Can I visualize? Yes. It’s a force of effort and usually more for “seeing” patterns in data than anything else (yes, I’m a freak that way). There are exceptions– there are a few random places that I can pop into my head no problem.

    Do I visualize when I read? No. When I listen to music? EXTREMELY rarely– there are about 3 pieces of music where I get not so much a visual as a feel of fire or swooping down in high places. But as a rule? No visualization for me. It’s like the words go straight through to the meaning part of the brain without first passing through the visual or auditory parts (to use the non-technical terms). This has led to interesting spirituality discussions with the husband-beast about the need to personify or otherwise visualize deities or other outside forces. But I digress…

  7. mizkit

    *laugh*! Yes!

    And no!

    Because I think the reason I get so into the details of a sex scene is because I *don’t* see what’s going on, so in order for it to seem clear to me, I have to write out every. Little. Detail. Otherwise you have the moral equivilant of the 3-armed romance heroine in my head, or something…

  8. annathepiper

    This sounds pretty close to how it works for me. I tend to be able to visualize things in bits and pieces–and generally I visualize my characters better if I’ve ‘cast’ them as someone in my head, someone who I’ve seen in real life and whose expressions I can easily bring to mind. If I haven’t done that ‘casting’, I only get the bits and pieces.

    Same deal with surroundings… I have to construct it bit by bit and if I try to visualize it, it comes out sort of dreamlike in my consciousness. When I actually convert that into words, I look for the words that feel right. But there’s not necessarily a connection between that and a picture I’ve built in my head.

  9. mizkit

    With exceptions of secondary characters in THE QUEEN’S BASTARD, whom I cast as actors specifically because it amused me, I could not tell you who *any* of my main characters look like. I could give you a type, but not a specific. I might recognize Morrison if he walked down the street, but I don’t know what he looks like.

    (Ok, the exception here is Jo, whom I accidentally wrote to look like a high school classmate of mine who went on to be a supermodel. But that was pure coincidence!)

  10. dancinghorse

    I write by feel. And kinesthesia. Visuals seem clunky. When people tell me to visualize, I always ask, “Why? Can’t I just feel it?”

    I can make myself do the 3-D thing but would rather just feel my way around it and get the shape inside me and play with the other senses. Visuals for me are a sort of shorthand to the way things smell, taste, sound, or feel.

    I think I may be weirder than you….

  11. yfel

    I visualize. I see scenes from books, for example. When people are talking to me, I often see the text of what they are saying as if it were coming across a scrolling display. From what I gather, most people don’t have this mental court stenographer thing going on.

    I mostly see abstract representations of music I listen to. Shapes and colors, lines and movement. Vibrations. Textures. Kind of like WinAmp visualization plugins, but I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember. If the lyrics tell a story, sometimes I see the imagery of the story playing out. It may be a mild form of synaesthesia, but I’m not sure. How I would go about checking for sure is anyone’s guess. Certain ideas and concepts also have textures and colors to me, so I guess that’s it.

    In particular I tend to visualize my work — I’m an engineer, and I definitely do the 3D rotate thing a lot. I mentally see graphs of charge on capacitors and I see function calls in programming code as, well, a sort of foldy-jumpy thing I can’t adequately describe. I tend to imagine heat flow as something like an IR camera view of an object.

    When I read about the structure of networked systems like the p2p system Freenet, I very often have dreams where I am trapped inside a vast visualization of whatever the network is. In the Freenet case, I dreamt all night that I was a packet being repeatedly reencrypted and routed through their network via their crazy protocol.

    So yeah, I visualize.

  12. tersa

    (Sorta like ‘I pinch’, but different, but then again, you may not have seen those Honda Element ads over there in Ireland, so that joke may have just flopped like a lead balloon…)

    Anyway. :) I visualize. When I read, it is not in outstanding, 3-D ‘movie in my mind’ clarity, but more impressionistic, unless the author has invested a goodly number of words to describe something, or to “paint a picture with words”. Then, the process of reading through all those words actually creates a stronger image in my head.

    But when I’m writing myself? I can see the characters move in their environment, and that level of detail frequently translates into my writing, to the point where beats me over the head for being “too purple” (she, OTOH, is a very minimalistic writer. By practice, though, not by inclination).

    What’s funny? I think I would be capable of rattling off those paragraphs you exampled in about 20 minutes, but I don’t believe they would be nearly as evocative or well-written as your six hours of laborious work. And those paragraphs really *are* strongly evocative of an image, for those of us who do so. So, kudos for that. :)

    (And I remember that discussion at WW. It continues to fascinate me that there are people out there who *don’t* visualize at all, and is just as informative as your epiphany the other direction!)

  13. zhaneel

    That actually explains the odd visualizations I get from your books. Most of the book is very ‘sketchy’ in my mind with only one portion actually in focus or animated. Sometimes, it’s just the voice of the character — though the internal garden scenes and Gary are very vivid. I wonder if that’s because you don’t visualize?

    I don’t consciously see the words on the page when I read, all I see is the story unfolding in my mind in full color and motion, right down to the grass blowing. However, that being said, I do remember locations of specific text on the page, even though I don’t remember actually ‘seeing’ it.

    On long car rides, I usually do visualization games with myself – crafting a specific object until it is absolutely perfect. I’ve folded origami in my mind, spotlighting it and rotating it 360 degrees as the folds are made.

    I can’t, however, visualize anything with music or audio, which is why I can’t stand books-on-tape. It’s just a string of words then and I usually tune it out to think my own thoughts. Poetry doesn’t do a lot for me (I usually work on understanding what the author is trying to say), but there are a few that do produce strong images and consequently, strong impressions (Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen springs to mind).

  14. debela

    I don’t visualize. My husband does, and so I have done unto him as was done unto you – and it’s incredibly useful.

    Kit knows this, but I’m just stating it for the record: I don’t visualize at all and I rarely hear voices if at all. This is incredibly frustrating if I’m drawing, because if I don’t have a model, I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing until it comes out on the page. (I know: I’m drawing a woman! I don’t necessarily know *which* woman, for example.)

    It’s not that I don’t know the facts – I can break them down and I’m aware of the component traits and can describe them to someone, but I can’t see it in my head. It’s a purely intellectual interaction. I determined arbitrary traits for my characters, but I didn’t visualize them, which led to a lot of looking at pictures of other people to isolate which bits struck me right, for example. (This is how Kit got me to watch LFN, in fact.)

  15. ursulav

    Nope! And I’m an artist!

    If I get an image in my head at all, it’s a…hmm….kind of like flipping at high speed through channels on a TV. I get the briefest blur. I can call up that brief blur again, sometimes, but if I attempt to look closely at any part of it, it dissolves completely. Rotate it? Feh, crazy talk.

    I may have a fairly solid idea of how a painting is supposed to go, mind you, but it’s not a picture in my head, it’s more like…mm…knowing how to drive to the store, I suppose. “Turn left here, turn right here, go straight through this light, here we go, take a left.” I don’t SEE the trip as a roadmap in my head with my car as a moving dot, and I don’t SEE the painting. I just know how you get there from here.

    Mostly, I think in words. So does my mother, also an artist. (We’ve had this conversation before.) Painting, to a certain extent, is all about trial and error–“This isn’t right. This isn’t right. This isn’t right. This is less wrong. Bingo! There we go.”

    Artistically, this isn’t particularly frustrating for me, oddly enough, because while people talk about how frustrating it is that this didn’t look like the picture in their head, when you don’t have one, it’s a lot easier to be satisfied. It’s only when you get an image that you know has a way that will look right, but you don’t know how to get there, and you have to extract it from your skull through trial and error and whimpering, that it gets frustrating.

  16. kirbyk

    I absolutely visualize when I read. I think this is why I’m a slower reader than, say, you, or diony, or my crazy English major friend who once read a novel in half an hour while having a conversation with me. (Not a dense or long novel, but still. And she retained the knowledge when I quizzed her, unbelieving.) It probably takes me, I don’t know, 10-12 hours to read through a book like Urban Shaman, but a lot of that is me stopping and looking around. :-) Which is even more amusing, knowing that I’m looking around a place that you created but didn’t see that way.

    I’m not a Writer, but I sometimes write, and I do have visual (and, more importantly for me, audial) imagery in my head. I really know what my characters sound like.

    I do like some poetry, and not others, but I haven’t read enough to be able to formalize the rules. I like a good rhythm, like a Robert Frost, though. Some writers have a poetic command of language that does enthrall me – Guy Gavriel Kay, Patricia McKillip – but I tend to prefer the crisper, simpler tones that read aloud well of a Neil Gaiman or C.E. Murphy. So, even though I visualize, I still get the idea of beautiful language. But getting too flowery and purple of prose does often annoy me. I guess I like the top 1% of complex language, and the top 10% of clear descriptive language.

    I’m also an excellent speller.

  17. misterzamboni

    I visualize almost everything. I have to “see” things before I can describe them, or even remember details about them sometimes. But everything is visually related, so it balances out. I even seem to visualize memories where I can’t remember what everything looked like exactly, but all the details are attached to the “image” of the event. Finding my keys seems to involve picturing my keys and sort of pulling back until I can see where I last saw them.

    Not only can I “look” at all sides of something I’m visualizing, I can relate it to other things I’ve seen or place it in a different context and “see” how it looks. I’m also good with distances and spatial relationships – I remember how to get somewhere by visualizing the route.

    If I’m writing something (usually documentation these days *shrug*), I have to at least picture the outline first. Someday I’d like to be able to draw out the pictures in my head when I design software.

    I like poetry. But usually it’s very abstract images. Unless it’s something narrative like Robert Service.

    I think having a photographic memory would be keen, but unfortunately, I don’t. I do have a good eye for level, plumb, distance, size, etc. though. I can work quite well symbolically (math, programming, etc.), but I think my brain kicks into visual mode whenever possible. I definitely form images and even scenes in my head when I read. High praise from me about a movie adapted from a book is that it *looks* like the characters/scenes from the books.

  18. mizkit

    That actually explains the odd visualizations I get from your books. Most of the book is very ‘sketchy’ in my mind with only one portion actually in focus or animated. Sometimes, it’s just the voice of the character — though the internal garden scenes and Gary are very vivid. I wonder if that’s because you don’t visualize?

    Almost certainly. I’ve, hm. Become more aware of focusing on description and the like, having learned that people actually pay attention to that stuff (for what are presumably obvious reasons, I /don’t/; for me it’s always been just sort of eye-rolling, “Ok ok I get it the room is crowded with stuff can we get back to the story?” tedious information). I don’t know that it’s made a significant impact on my writing yet, though I do find myself thinking that maybe I need to put in a little more detail about the room or the park or the whatever. And when that happens I try to do it, but man, to me it feels like stuffing unnecessary words into what would otherwise be a perfectly fine paragraph.

    And along those lines, I tend to think of my writing style as being efficient: get in, tell the story, get out; don’t waste time with details that aren’t driving the story forward. I want the details I show to tell you something about the character. The rest of it is, to me, utterly superfluous, but it turns out the rest of it to many other people keeps characters from standing around in a bare room with four unpainted walls.

    Who knew?

  19. mizkit

    Turn left here, turn right here, go straight through this light, here we go, take a left.” I don’t SEE the trip as a roadmap in my head with my car as a moving dot, and I don’t SEE the painting. I just know how you get there from here.


  20. pbray

    Happy Birthday!

    As for my writing, I don’t visualize. I’m one of those aural dominant people, as opposed to visual dominant, so thinking in terms of pictures isn’t natural to me.

    I have been doing visualization exercises over the past couple of years though, and I’ve gotten better at creating mental images in my head. But it’s not an ingrained skill–I have to stop and consciously think about it in order to make it work.

    And I’m still no good at figuring out how furniture will look in a room or what the piece of paper with lines drawn on it will look like when it’s folded up.

  21. mizkit

    High praise from me about a movie adapted from a book is that it *looks* like the characters/scenes from the books.

    Absolutely. Peculiarly, even though I don’t visualize, I can tell you if I think an actor cast in a book part “looks” right. As said up above, “I can’t see it, but I *know* it.”

  22. ramurphy

    You know I don’t visualize, but I think Ursula has hit upon what I -do- do. I -know- what this design made up in that fabric will look like. I -know- how that color will look on the wall, and if it’ll go with the furniture. But I don’t ever get more than that blur of which she speaks except through a great effort of will, and can only hold it for moments.

  23. ysarndrax

    I know I was there for one of these conversations at your place in Anchorage and your folks were there. So yes I do visualize…extensively. Any type of “story” plays visually in my head whether it be a history textbook or the latest Kit novel. I think someone asked about the extra stuff that isn’t in the scene or the writer doesn’t actually go and describe, and I just make that up to fill in the background of the images, and wait for the author to either confirm what I had already visualized or change my image when what the author has described contradicts my previous visualization.
    I think this is also one of the reason why I don’t draw or write much. I can never get my art to look like what I see in my head and I always spend too much time on the details of what things look like when writing because I want everyone to “see” what I “see”.

  24. space_parasite

    I think this is related to the way you can recognize someone even if you can’t remember what they look like when they aren’t there in front of you. There are two different sorts of memory mechanisms involved.

  25. zhaneel

    Well, your writing style generally results in my having to sit down and read the entire book in one sitting, because I’ve gotta know what comes next and I can’t just leave the characters in this awful spot!

    Not that I’m complaining. :)

    Seriously though… It’s only odd if I think about it, but otherwise, I’m waiting (very impatiently, I might add) to get the next book and continue the adventures. If anything, the disconnect between the extreme visualization of the internal ‘scape and the bare-bones real world helps define the borders and even illustrate some of the issues Joanne has with being a shaman.

  26. mizkit

    the disconnect between the extreme visualization of the internal ‘scape and the bare-bones real world helps define the borders and even illustrate some of the issues Joanne has with being a shaman.

    …I’m going to pretend that was a conscious decision on my part, ok?

  27. mizkit

    Thank you!

    Ok, the number of writers who aren’t visualizers is interesting to me. I have *no* idea what I would be dominant as. Verbal, I suspect, but I don’t know what that would really equate to…

  28. mizkit

    I name mine, but I don’t have any emotional connection to them.

    Except my teeny tiny Sony Vaio laptop, but I can’t help it. I *love* that computer. :)

  29. annathepiper

    Heh, it sounds like you and I aren’t terribly far off from each other in how this thing works for us. Except I cast more of my characters than just the secondaries. ^_^

    Once in a while I’ll be able to sort of mentally cobble together my own image of what a character will look like, but it’s almost like taking an extant photo of someone else in my brain and trying to Photoshop it until it looks right. For example, my heroine in Faerie Blood doesn’t match up with anybody I know in real life, actors or otherwise. So I sort of have to think of it in terms of “oh, she’s got this person’s eyes, and this person’s complexion, and this other person’s general bone structure.”

  30. quezz

    I have Asperger’s syndrome, so I can only visualize. I have photographically-based (near-photographic) memory, and have great difficulty remembering auditory commands because I visualize everything. I enjoy it, because I get some great pictures in my head, though sometimes I wish I was able to remember what someone said to me more easily.

    However, it causes me to write well and with minimalist tendencies.

    What you have is the opposite learning disorder, actually. It’s amazing you decided to become a writer, and it makes so much sense to me now why you write so much and have so many revisions. I tend tio jot something down once after I have it in my head, and it’s all done.

    However…I have to be able to see it first.

  31. ammepyre

    No Visualizing here. I’ve heard about it though. I think for the longest time I thought I had to be doing something wrong since I’m not seeing the scene in my head before/during writing.

    Now however, I’ve started to do a bit of it when I’m editing, but even then it’s a struggle.

    However when I’m reading others books I do have some light visualizing although I prefer to drown myself in the characters’ emotions more than their appearances or settings — even in mysteries where an important clue might be in plain “sight”.

    *is weird*

  32. liret

    I can’t really visualize. I can sort of approximate it, but it’s more like symbols then actual images – if I try to picture my old house, which was house shaped and white, I can see something that is house shaped and white. But I have to have the words, or I can’t get even that much of a picture.

    When I write, I think of how my viewpoint character would describe the things around him or her, rather then ever picturing them myself. And I’m horrible at description, partly because in a lot of cases I don’t think it’s necessary but everyone else does.

  33. karistan

    Visualization? Hah! I think in words, not images. This explains why I can spell just about anything but can’t remember details. Trying to call up a specific image in my head is like watching a TV that’s on the blink, it fades in and out with little clarity.

    This makes writing hard, even though I love it. Details take lots of research, subject knowledge, or a picture in front of me. This is why it takes me forever to write a paragraph. I want it all to evoke something specific and I have to find the right words.

  34. mostlymaylone

    I remember you mentioning this during a game session. Being the complete opposite I couldn’t, still cannot, understand how you do w/o the pictures. I know I over visualize; 3-d, Right side up, upside down, inside out, english, metric, b&W, over coloured, broken, beaten, dented, or non existent. I can draw it, put it in a CAD program, build it w/o plans, probably even sculpt or paint it,(never tried that. Like I need another hobby).
    If you were to ask me to write what I saw, it would be much like Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’. WAY over detailed; too much information. It would probably also be limited to four letter mono-syllabic words. :)

  35. madmiss

    I don’t ‘think’ I visualize. I think I have to have a secondary sense involved. Usually movement.
    Would it make sense if I said I see/hear things as movements? (my minds like windows media player… strange)

    It’s like the bit in art class where the teacher puts on some music and your told draw what you hear. Lots of people just hear music. Some see a story unfolding, some see colours, and some people smell. But the majority just ‘hear’ music.

  36. veilofgrace

    Good question!

    The Hubby is a 3-Der, which happily means wherever we go, he can find us a route home. Half my family sees and manipulates numbers in a way that totally baffles me. My mother has excellent spatial visualization and I think she’s a 3-Der, too, ’cause she can look at a piece of fabric and know what it’s going to become before she cuts it.

    I ended up with neither. I can visualize, though. Writing in “the Zone” as a friend of mine calls it (apparently she can tell from the writing when I’m in it and when I’m not), the scenes move like dreams – like movies, only I exist there in the world with the character. The details are often sketchy, though. And I can’t see faces. Mouths, faces…elements, without the whole picture. I can’t hold images in my head…I have to back up the film and replay it constantly. On the other hand, I hear the voices, smell the smells, feel the textures and the clothes and the air. I also see words, too, which means music with lyrics tends to end up in paragraph form in my head instead of pictures. Hrm. Music does, but books on tape don’t. They seem to skip the word filter and flow directly into the subconscious.

    As for poetry…I’ve had too many cold analysis classes to enjoy reading it. I do like Frost more than most.

  37. eponin10

    Yes, I visualize, both when I read and when I write. But not quite the same way.

    When I read, I’ve often said it feels like I see the words as a movie in my head. I can see the action, hear the character’s voices.

    When I write, I can do the same thing, provided I have a clear enough idea ahead of time where I want the scene to go. But, I tend to slow the action down when I write. Probably because if I went at movie-style speed, my poor typing fingers wouldn’t be able to keep up! *laugh* I can’t do the 3D thing, though. That would be neat! I can forward and rewind, however. It really does feel like I’m controlling a movie, with a remote and everything.

    And yes, I like poetry. I even write poetry. But oddly enough, I don’t visualize my poetry. The poetry starts out as a theme, or a word, or a concept, or one single picture, frozen in time, in my head. The the poem just spills out in a torrent of words, where I just write and don’t think about it at all.

    Then, once the poem is down on paper, I can adjust it so it makes sense, or flows better, or whatever.

  38. chrysoula

    I remember you asking me that, at that Writer’s Weekend, and I remember being as amazed as you were.

    And I’ve thought about it some since then, and studied my own thoughts in light of that conversation.

    I absolutely do not see movies in my head.

    I do, however, get occasional visuals in my head, especially when I’ve been heavily involved in an image-based medium (like comics or tv) recently.

    I have no trouble imagining voices.

    I’m terrible at most descriptions. Usually I have to pretend I’m there. There’s an exception, and it’s stuff that I’ve seen in the visual flashes I mention above.

    HOWEVER, it turns out that the images in my head translate very poorly to words. I stumble and stutter and fail because when I try to (for example) describe an image of a ‘…a woman sitting casually on the edge of a bed, nude, skin the color of caramel, chin-length hair bleached red…’ the words just get in the way. All the details I can identify but somehow I have to find the words that actually /capture/ her, and I don’t get many. If there are too many words, the essence is lost, destroyed by verbosity. What I want to capture is the way the bottom edge of her stripped hair brushes her cheekbone, the way the rumpled pale sheets set off the brown of her skin, the casual curve of her spine and the way her tummy wrinkles up on the other side, and the way her laughing eyes mock me for spending so much time staring at her skin.

    So in a way it’s easier to write descriptions when I don’t have images… I can just assign words. I can just pretend. I just have to add them in later, ’cause as I’m telling a story, the only things I think to describe are sensations, contrasts, sounds, scents and moments of glory. (moments of glory: sort of the ‘opening credits’ thing)

    I’ve been able to use this, kind of… I’ve noticed people tend to fill in details on their own, translate things to their own mediums, at least in certain situations.

    This is what I remember from your lovely horse-and-rider description, without looking:

    A horse the color of quicksilver, moving, reaaring, trying to kill me. It looks like a CGI horse but it smells like a real horse and there’s a velvety texture to the skin you just don’t get in CGI yet. There’s crashing around me as the diner is wrecked by the creature– my god, no horse is that big. And on his back, a silver rider, with green eyes, and his hand extended, and a smile. I want to let that smile take me away.

    Oh god.’

  39. chrysoula

    er, meant to add… upon rereading yours, quite different! Though I have to say, mine came from yours, ’cause normally descriptions don’t do /anything/ for me. Oh, and measurement descriptions like yards or feet or whatever? Meaningless! How big is a room? I know most people find things like ’60 feet long’ meaningful so I try my best to estimate but my mental description of a room that sized would be based more on how my voice sunded in it, or how long it’d take me to skip from one end to theother and how tired I’d be afterwards, or… other things. time to go home though.

  40. silkblade

    At best I get static pictures in my head. Nothing remotely 3d or movie-like. Mostly though, I hear my voice reading the passage in my head. Which seems odd because I don’t think I learn very well by listening to other people talk. Maybe it’s just that I only pay attention to the things I say. ;)

    I tend to gloss over descriptions of fight scenes in books because I can’t really see it in my head.

    I’m not a writer, so I can’t really speak to that.

    I wonder how this relates to dreams though. I have very visual dreams that I just can’t describe in words.

  41. eveshka

    Yes… and yes.

    Though, sometimes it’s a flash like photographs and I see some of the segments, but not all of them.

    Sometimes, it’s simply a character making a face, sometimes it’s an entire scene.

    In a way, it hurts my writing because I can see it, and what I see isn’t completely conceptualized in the writing and my proofers sometimes ask me how he was standing, who she was looking at… and I’m surprised that they didn’t see it the way I did.

    It’s helped immensely in my descriptives to realize that not everyone can see it in their heads like a movie sequence.

  42. chrysoula

    OK, so I keep staring at my second description of the woman and thinking, “But that works perfectly well for /me/.” And I look at the first one and I wince at the word ‘nude’ and I say, “Wait, did I mention she was naked in my other one? No, no I didn’t. But but but naked/nude is such a… /brash/ word. It doesn’t fit the scene at all!”

    I don’t just enjoy poetry, sometimes I write it. I’m very very attached to words. I can recall (and recognize) certain passages from books pretty darn well, and when I do, it’s usually the words themselves I see in my head. But that’s dialogue and emotional/relational scenes. Purely visual scenes? Well, if they’re good (that is, interestingly presented) I read and remember them (instead of skim them– I’m like Michelle with fight scenes) but I don’t remember the words, I remember the image and I have to retranslate it into words. And I miss some details. And some things, I get wrong (like I bet you were using ‘grey’ in the ‘white’ sense, huh?).

    The skimming of fight scenes made writing them kind of a challenge at first, actually. If I imagine fights I’ve seen in movies– it’s like visual chaos. Stuff happens! People jump around! Stuff gets broken! Putting something into a fast-paced narrative without getting bogged down in irrelevant details was /really hard/. How do I know what’s relevant to other people? What I see is practically meaningless and I can’t even tell the characters apart now! How do I assemble it in a coherent /sequence/? Especially when multiple things are happening at once? But I found this possible happy medium where I focus on the elements most meaningful to myself: sensation, movement, impact, etc, and then I found I /really/ enjoy writing and reading those.

    Michelle says she still skimmed mine though. :-) So I dunno if it’s /actually/ a happy medium. Time will tell.

    How many people think of the actual exchanges of blows in the Inigo-Man In Black fight scene in The Princess Bride? I mean, the details of the movement? Me, I’m pretty sure there’s some jumping up and down on fallen blocks of stone going on, and some exciting clashing of swords together, but that is ALL punctuation to the dialogue, and Inigo’s wild curiousity, and the Man In Black’s cool competence.

  43. chrysoula

    Some of this thread has been very useful, by the way, in thinking about ways to describe several non-visual locations that I need to describe better.

  44. chrysoula

    This amazes me. I’m realizing how limited our wonderful language is. I think that while I could draw you a picture (maybe) or recognize them on the street, I simply could not use visual words to describe more than the basic details of my characters, and even then I’d rely on some abstracts like ‘thin pretty face’. Nose? Well, I guess maybe it’s kind of up-pointy, or maybe straight and small? Not sure. Is it really important? Look, she’s got cinnamon skin and long black hair and black eyes and she’s pretty and she and her older sister look identical. And I only know those details ’cause of worldbuilding.

    Characters in another story, whre skin color isn’t related to plot? Um… I /think/ one of my protagonists has shiny black hair? But gosh darn it, I know the /feel/ of her in my head and– and this is the wacky part– I can ‘see’ her in some of the ‘moments of glory’. Like, I know the pose she’s in and so forth.

    Heck, I’m not sure I could describe my husband. Let’s see. Brown eyes (I remember ’cause we’ve discussed genetics). Scruffy (he shaves around once a weel). He’s got a goatee and moustache, and his beard is a lot more red than his hair, and wiry. (He likes to talk about the red; somebody asked him how he dyed it once.) His hair is wavy and dark and shoulder-length (I like the feel of his hair in my fingers, and the dark against his pale skin is so striking). He has a weak chin under his beard (that’s why he has one. his brother got all the chin in the family). His face is a bit rounder than average, I think. He’s got dramatic eyebrows. His lips are soft. I like to hug him and put my face against his neck.

    I actually seem to pull up memories of people I know by remembering physical photographs I’ve actually touched, and then describing what jumps out at me about them. That’s how I remember my mother, anyhow, and there’s this vague ‘Kitish’ and ‘Annaish’ images in my head right now (Kit’s is supplemented by her recent gorgeous digital photo, but that’s fading. And I last saw Anna um, walking down her driveway when I picked up Jenna? So I remember her stride and how she was bundled up– but I couldn’t tell you what those were.)

    Gee, think I like this topic too?

  45. chrysoula

    Yes! Touch! People have ‘feels’ inside! Rooms have echoes that describe their size! And the feel of the floor against bare feet! And words have a shape that is distinct (but related) to their meaning.

    My husband always mocks me because I never notice physical visual details around us. But I spend a whole lot of time touching things as I wander by them.

    I am weirded out by the way that I can only summon up images of people I know by recalling visual inputs that have been disconnected from the relationship: photographs I’ve handled are much easier than digital images, too. It’s like turning something into a photograph and linking it to some other input allows me to process visual data in a new way.

    No wonder I had so many problems when I was trying to be an artist… I always wanted to draw things photo-realistic, and I was never satisfied with anything I drew without a visual model, and even the stuff with models I was nitpicky about… but when I would occasionally loosen up to draw much more cartoony/stick-figure representations, I’d absolutely LOVE those.

  46. chrysoula

    Vividly. Often. I’ve kept a dream diary for years. I’ve had to train myself to convert the dream into words as I slowly wake up, and then I go and scribble as many of them down as I can. Sometimes there are definitely things where ‘image’ is the closest word I can find, but it’s not the flat image of TV, it’s got other senses involved, and relationships between the components of the dream are in… I dunno… rich dream format? It ends up being basically the same way I write, except without an attempt to involve the written word.

    There are almost never written words in my dreams. There are sometimes spoken words. Voiceovers. Movies. There are stories and events and scenes. But all the books are blank.

    And I’ve found that when I wake up and go to write the dream down, the words I end up choosing to describe it are usually very telling about some of the influences on the dream– but I can’t realize that until I’ve read my own words. Also, I tend to concentrate on finding words that will evoke details; writing things down is how I lock them in my memory, and what I put in the book is just keywords to conjuring up vast, rich detail that it would be incredibly hard to capture succinctly.

    God, I read all that and I can’t believe I want to be a professional writer.

    I think I generally daydream by saying, “What if ‘X’ happened? What would I do then? What would Z do then?’

  47. pbray

    I suspect you’re aural dominant as well.
    Someone once explained to me that aural dominant means I pay more attention to sounds than visual images. Practically it means I learn better by hearing than by seeing images. I can’t draw, but have an excellent memory for song lyrics.

    If authors put long passages of descriptions in their books, I’ll skip right over them. Unless the characters are naked or wearing tight leather pants, I don’t care what anyone is wearing, nor am I interested in what a room looks like, except, perhaps, with a view to escape routes.

    It’s something I work on in my writing–I cast each of my main characters using actors’ photos and keep a printout hung beside the monitor so I remember what they look like. For action scenes I sometimes sketch things out to make sure I’m keeping track of who is where. It’s one of those things that hopefully I’m getting better at over time….

  48. janne

    *ponder*. I was reading this, and the old thread of visualizing Tom Cruise, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that I can visualize imaginary people and places quite well and in 3D. Real ones are more like snapshots. (Literally in one case… I tried to fix my grandmothers appearance in my mind once when I was quite young and started to realize about this mortality thing. The way that worked was to take a mental ‘photo’ and frame it and put it up on the wall. (Imaginary wall, that is.) I can still call up that image, frame and all, much better than any later images of what she actually looked like in her last years.
    Visualizing a palm beach, now that is easy. Grains of sand running through the fingers, shadows moving with a burst of wind… Maybe it’s a sideeffect of a daydreaming childhood :)
    And like others, I liked poetry until I had it burned out of me by too much analyzing in school. Still like the occasional one, but rarely get images from that.
    And now time to stop daydreaming about palm trees and get back to work!

  49. mizkit

    I have a god-awful memory for song lyrics, to the never-ending despair of my husband and friends. I listen *hard* to music, but I’m listening to the music, not the words; I suspect this has something to do with having been raised in dance classes. I focus on the music and the beat and the count, not the words. If somebody comes in while I’m listening to music and speaks to me they’ll usually scare the snot out of me, ’cause *all* I’m doing is listening to the music. V. concentrated. :)

    If authors put long passages of descriptions in their books, I’ll skip right over them. Unless the characters are naked or wearing tight leather pants, I don’t care what anyone is wearing, nor am I interested in what a room looks like, except, perhaps, with a view to escape routes.

    Yeah! Like that! Me too!

  50. mizkit

    Truthfully, I don’t do that many revisions. HEART OF STONE is a huge exception, because I’ve ended up doing something very different with the book than what I’d started with.

    I might, however, buy it as sort of a learning disorder. I’ve got something of a theory that it’s part of why I’m so incredibly bad at math. Everybody I’ve talked to who’s good at math visualizes, and can’t imagine doing math without visualizing.

  51. mizkit

    Oooh! What a GREAT question!

    I do remember my dreams, but they’re nothing like daydreams. Daydreams are words, for me, stories I tell to myself with words. (You should see the look Ted just gave me.) Dreams are in fact visual, for me, except the rare ones where I’m reading the story of the dream.

  52. neutronjockey

    …weather you choose to accept it or not:

    1) Synesthesia
    2) Neuro Linguistic Programming

    Applications of condition 1) and awareness of 2) can be deployed in writing to increase reader response and emotionaly connectivity.

    I write using a primitive form of screen blocking — so I visualize while writing, sometimes I hang on the most minor of details because of it.

    You may not be connected neurologically to visualize. Try an excersize by writing details of a scene previously written from the perspective of a blind person. You’ll probably find your key there.


    While reading or listening to music I don’t visualize. It works one way…but not the other for me.

  53. mizkit

    Quite different, but your recollection of the scene basically gets across what I wanted to, so I did something right there, I guess.

    I love your “how my voice sounded in it” or “skipping from one end to another” way of thinking of room sizes. I’m going to keep that in mind, because I think it’s a great way to describe places. This has been a very interesting and useful thread!

  54. janne

    Hee, I was thinking about that myself. Reading the bit about Cernunnos in the diner, I couldn’t really get an image of the surroundings except as something vaguely out of City of Heroes. Colors and basic shapes beyond a glass door, maybe a counter somewhere off to the side, no real details. And it occured to me that the parts of your books that I do have visuals of are mostly the mindscapes. The characters are fairly vivid (particularly ‘Thor’), but not many of the places.

  55. anonymous

    Same here.

    It’s funny, because I CAN do the kind of “flip stuff around in my head” visualization, but seeing movies when I read? Crazy talk.

  56. anonymous

    I’m good at math (I better be since I do it for a living!). I don’t so much visualize as intuit it– I get a “feel” of how the data are coming together. Though in interests of full disclosure, it IS the one area where I’m more likely to visualize, when I do at all.

    Brains are VERY cool.

  57. anonymous

    I remember my dreams, but usually not for long after I wake up, and usually more as an overall theme than specific images. That said, there are definitely images in them.

    As for daydreams? Some are telling myself a story, like Kit. Some are just playing with concepts, but more in the abstract, not in a “I can see it” sort of way. In a classic example, if I’m daydreaming about hiking in the mountains, I get a “feel” of being in the mountains, but not so much a visual movie of walking there. There’s a couple places where I can pull up a picture, but daydreams tend to be more conceptual-driven and less driven by those pictures. And to take it a step further, most of my daydreams are not even realistic at all, but more abstract wanderings through concepts, if that makes any sense at all.

    I love this thread.

  58. jennifer_dunne

    Yes, yes, yes! Me, too! When people ask if I see my scenes or hear them, I have to answer, “Neither. I live them.”

    I took a workshop on how to assemble a wardrobe for a conference, once, and the lady teaching it asked us things about what colors we normally wore, and which ones we liked … and I was like, “soft cotton, sleek satins, fuzzy velvets, glittering sparkles, intricate beadwork”, trailing sleeves that snapped and flowed during gestures… Color seemed such a terribly unimportant secondary consideration. :-)

  59. isarobogirl

    I get not only pictures, but full movies. Movement, sound and a very big part of me even feels it.

    I best learn by a combination of visual, kinestetic and auditive impulses. Which I think helps me very much with composing songs. The best way for me writing lyrics, is following the flow of the tunes. The storys my songs tell are developed that way and I change them, until they feel right and fit the tune. I could never take lyrics and put another melody over them.

    A good book can draw me in and then I see the whole thing happening, feel it, hear. (There is no sense of smell included though.)

  60. waterowl

    Happy belated birthday!

    Short answer: None of the above. When I describe things in my writing, it’s because that detail evokes a memory. And when I write, I’m thinking about that memory. Sometimes I decide the scene needs more detail, so I’ll go back and explore more.

    Longer answer because I wanted to share the question. Thanks for asking an interesting question.

  61. drivingblind

    I can visualize in amazing 3-d technicolor. In fact, it is my great frustration in life that I do not have the artistic talent to make these visualizations occur through some sort of visual medium. Because, damn. I’d be rich.

    I can listen to a song sung by one person, then imagine another singer, and hear that singer singing the song that isn’t his song.

    Better yet, sometimes I can even feel certain kinetic elements of what I’m visualizing. Air rushing past due to flight. Impact.

  62. drivingblind

    Actually, there’s more. I can’t *stop* visualizing. It’s in fact a part of the downside of my psychology, something I’d like to get fixed (chemically if necessary) if I could do it without sacrificing a major share of my creativity to do so.

    Like: put me at the top of a set of stairs and I very quickly visualize falling down it and breaking my neck. And I can’t shake the visualization.

    It blows. But I do like the upsides of the talent.

  63. anonymous

    No I don’t visualize, or at least I don’t think I do. If I try I can see a picture of a person in my head (rooms are easier), but I just thought that was memory. I don’t see pictures when I read (and I read a lot) unless I have actually been to the place described or know the person being written about. However I remember maps and can easily find a place even if I looked at a map a couple of days before. Also, I can remember the whereabouts on a page of a particular paragraph or piece of text, but not as a picture as such ie I know what the paragraph says, where it is but I don’t see a picture of the words. I don’t see anything when I listen to music. This whole idea is fascinating and especially so as my daughter has just told me that she sees things really clearly when she reads and if she thinks of a person she sees them moving around just like a film, she was amazed that I don’t and gave me a look that she usually saves for slugs and other nasties – inferior lifeform that’s me. Jo

  64. mizkit

    Thank you! It was a good birthday. :)

    And you’re welcome! This has been lots of fun. I think it’s a great question. :) I’ll keep an eye on your post to see if people respond, because I think the whole thing is so darned interesting!

  65. mizkit

    I can listen to a song sung by one person, then imagine another singer, and hear that singer singing the song that isn’t his song.

    *Buh*. No wonder you despair so utterly of my musical recognition skills. I can barely tell you who did the original, much less do something like that.

    Like: put me at the top of a set of stairs and I very quickly visualize falling down it and breaking my neck. And I can’t shake the visualization.

    …that explains something I never quite grokked. Interesting. Alarming. No wonder you’d like to turn that off.

  66. mizkit

    Sounds to me like your memory is primarily visual, or at least noticeably visual, whereas mine is just words. And tell your daughter you’re not a slug. :) No inferior life forms here!

  67. artful_dabbler

    I can visualize (as we have discussed before) and rotate things in 3D and even sometimes turn things inside out. I think these things are either required before you can build furniture or are very helpful. :) The frustrating thing for me is when I cant get the thing in my head to become reality. I CANNOT draw, but if I can make it in 3D I can bring what is in my head out.

  68. janne

    Like: put me at the top of a set of stairs and I very quickly visualize falling down it and breaking my neck. And I can’t shake the visualization.

    I used to get that rather intensely while Cat was newborn–any situation that had even the tiniest chance of being harmful to the baby flashed into intense visualization. (Cutting bread? image of knife slipping and piercing baby. Walk through a doorway while holding her? *splat* as the image showed me accidentally banging Cat’s head against the doorframe.) It’s faded again, fortunately, but I suspect it’s some kind of instinct/survival trait back from the dawn of sentience or something, when people weren’t good at consciously figuring things out ahead of time. But that’s just my theory :) Maybe some people have that instinct more strongly than others.

  69. aelfsciene

    Sometimes I visualize so vividly that it gets in the way of what I’m trying to watch, which is weird. More of a pain in the ass is when the image is on the tip of my brain, as it were, where I can’t quite place a thing, but it’s nearly there.

    There was a particular Sharks promo video that played before games, which had music I found incredibly familiar. The first time I heard it, I stopped being able to process the video itself, because the near-images (it turned out to be from a Spider-Man 2 trailer) in my head were so overwhelming.

    And like Kirby, I sometimes think I take longer than I’d like reading because I do stop to think about what people/things look like (I have a lot of vivid imagery from Urban Shaman, frex), which is what it is, I guess.

    Oh! One of the more fun experiences was going back and reading Lord of the Rings after seeing FotR so many times, because I very specifically saw all the actors going through even the things cut from the movies (like most of the Ent stuff, which I always loved).

    I can’t imagine not imaging! You’re wierd! O.o

  70. brienze

    Hi! I stumbled across your blog via the mention of your Coraline puppet show visit on Neil’s. I’m a big fan of Urban Shaman and sequels (I loves me some contemporary fantasy that feels real rather than froofy) and was just browsing your back entries.

    Via my Friends Of list… have you considered dyscalculia? I recall in a more recent post you mentioned getting lost as if it were a typical thing, so I thought dyscalculia might be a possibility. Then again, I’d only recently learned that such a thing exists, so it may be a case of, “When what you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” =)

  71. mizkit

    *laugh* Welcome to my lj. Glad you found me and glad to hear you’re enjoying the Walker Papers! :)

    I don’t, in fact, typically get lost. That’s just how I talk. :)

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