When Writing Reveals Something You Never Knew About Yourself

28 Oct

I’m not a great believer in writing as therapy, or anything like that, but having now actually finished writing a book and looking back at the experience, I find it has taught me a few things.

Firstly, I can actually write a book. This was something I really wasn’t sure about when I started out. Secondly, writing the first draft is only the start of the process, after you have done that you’ve got to edit, edit and then edit some more.  It took me about three months to write the book, and then six months to edit it down to something that was at lease acceptable and that I was happy to run passed my group of readers.  Then there were another couple of months while I dealt with their comments and the issues they raised. All in all, in terms of time spent, it was a ratio of about one to three between writing and editing (but that might just be me).

The final thing I learned is a bit odd, and more unusual. In some ways it has changed my life, or at least changed (quite literally) the way I see and understand it. When I nervously showed the first draft of my book to my girlfriend, she pointed out two interesting things.  The first was she didn’t like it (she was expecting a finished story rather than an early draft and she was relieved when I explained the difference).  The second was that none of my characters had faces.  I’d described things like heights, hairstyles, beards and clothes, but nowhere had I mentioned anything about what peoples’ faces looked like.

Initially, I didn’t understand what she was talking about, then after a rather confused discussion it gradually dawn on me that we saw and recognised people in very different ways.  I think I’d always known this at some level, as I’m frequently having to ask the person sitting next to me who characters are in films and on TV. I also have a tendency to lose my girlfriend in crowds if I don’t remember what clothes she’s wearing that day, but I’d always presumed this was the same for everyone.  I mean, have you ever asked someone how they recognise other people?  It’s not exactly a question that is ever likely to come up in normal every day conversations.

Anyway, now the question had been asked, or at least answered, I decided to do some digging on the good old internet.  This is where I came across the term Prosopagnosia for the first time, and it seemed to fit my experiences rather well. I went on and got myself tested, and it turns out that this explained a lot.  Prosopagnosia is also known as Face Blindness and people with it have a very specific glitch in their brains that means that they cannot recognise faces (and just faces) they have seen before.  For me this means that I can recognise hairstyles, facial hair and so on, but not other facial characteristics.  Some people get this through a brain injury, while others, like me, have had it from birth.  This is probably why I’d never realised it before, it was something I’d always had and I’d done such a great job of creating ‘work-arounds’ that it wasn’t always obvious that I was seeing the world in a different way.

The upshot of all of this? I no longer feel guilty when I run into someone in the street who clearly knows me when I have absolutely no idea who they are (this is a regular occurrence for me, and has included people I know so well that I should have recognised them instantly).  Secondly, I make more of a concerted effort to remember what my girlfriend is wearing whenever we leave the house so I can find her again if we get separated.  Finally, when creating characters in my writing, I have to consciously remember to describe peoples’ faces and not just leave them as a blank slate (which is the way I see them in my head). This usually requires me to get my girlfriend (some of you are probably starting to feel a bit sorry for her at this point but she is, thankfully, very understanding and supportive) to read over character descriptions and check that I’ve provided enough information. I’m fine about adding it in, I just need someone to remind me that I need to do it.

Has having Face Blindness affected my writing? Now I know I have it, I can look back and say almost certainly.  I tend to write about small groups of people who are all very distinct in terms of ages and characters (and so would be easy to tell apart by non-facial characteristics). I also tend to have people wearing the same clothes throughout (or at least similar ones). This has, undoubtedly pushed me towards post-apocalyptic writing where both of these situations would not seem out of place. And indeed, you could argue that since the majority of people in For Those In Peril On The Sea are infected, zombie-like creatures, they have effectively become the faceless masses that I experience whenever I walk down a busy street.

It also occurred to me while reading into Face Blindness (nice as it is as a word, Prosopagnosia is just too long and confusing to be used on a regular basis), that this would be a great feature for a character in a book, or indeed a nice central hook for a whole story arc. It doesn’t really fit with what I’m currently working on (a follow-up to For Those In Peril On The Sea set in the same post-apocalyptic world but with a new set of easily distinguishable characters), but it’s definitely one to keep on the back-burner.

For more information on Face Blindness visit: https://www.faceblind.org/research/index.html. If you’d like to take a test to see if you have Face Blindness, visit: http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/index.php.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

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One Response to “When Writing Reveals Something You Never Knew About Yourself”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Sorry, Do I Know You? | Colin M. Drysdale - 29/05/2013

    […] I’ve almost certainly had face blindness all my life, it’s something I didn’t realise until quite recently. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed as a specific condition. I’ve always known I […]

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