The Mind Half-Empty or Half-Full: A Tale of Aphantasia



I saw a post on Facebook where someone had come across the term “aphantasia”. It’s the label for the phenomenon of not seeing images in the mind. An estimated 1 – 3% of the population have limited or no experience at all of mental pictures.

The meme was expressing dismay (and the comments, a deep sadness) over all that aphantasiacs must be missing. This post was specifically imagining a terrible loss in seeing only words on a page, not a movie in your mind, during reading.

Well, I’m aphantasic. And it’s not sad at all. It’s only hard to explain. But I’ll try.

I know what things look like. When I’m seeing the world with my eyeballs, I process visually like everyone else. But there’s nothing that feels like vision in my memory or during invention—in daydreaming or while composing fiction. I can’t see anything. I’m doing that other thing: the thinking about it thing – a completely different beast.

Everything that’s taken in through my sense of sight becomes something different once it’s in my head. There’s no picture, per se, to recall. It’s kind of like that raining code in the Matrix. I mean, I don’t “see” a code either. There’s this altogether separate sense that’s like a code for everything that’s gone from visible to conceptual.

Scientists only coined this term in, I think, 2015, and I only ran across it last year. It’s something I’d been trying to describe my entire life. What’s really funny is that this whole time, I thought everyone else was being metaphorical when they said they saw things in their minds. I thought that calling it vision was a convenient shorthand. I didn’t know I was an oddball. (Seriously, I’m not sure how many times I have to learn that lesson.)

I’m not missing out, though. I get to hear, see, smell, taste, and feel things the way everyone else does. But all the recorded regular senses, the information delivered in them, is translated into a distinctly different sensory property—a bonus sixth one, if you will, of What Things Are Like.

What things are like and what they look like are slightly different. It’s analogous to the difference between seeing something and recognizing it. Those two sensations are similar (and usually related) but they’re not the same thing. The experience of recognition is different from the physical sense of sight. There’s something else, a non-visual component.

I feel it like a magnet pulling metal shavings around a thought, giving it shape. Remember that toy? It’s like that.

Except it doesn’t look like that. *sigh* This is difficult.

I don’t have images in my mind, but there’s a separate device, a comprehensive catalog of recognition, as vivid and developed—and pleasurable when it’s pleasing—as my other senses. It’s a trove of what things are, according to me. Does that make sense?

When I read, I don’t ever bother trying to put together what things or people in the stories look like. I mean, if there’s something where the fact of what it looks like is important to the plot or character, I’ll certainly take note of it. But the description of things translates to me as what it’s like to be in that place or in that body, or the sense of what it’s like to have that fictitious emergency or salvation or despair or triumph.

It seems that for most people, imagining what it would be like to not see pictures with their thoughts is this awful, black, cavernous loss. But it’s nothing like that for me. I have a very rich internal life and imagination. It’s just different from what, as far as I understand it, most of you experience.

And, luckily, reading is a singular pleasure in synthesizing that sense of recognition from words alone.

Damn, I’m weird. I know.


A New Prized Possession & The Title of My Next Book

Now I have another thing to run back inside for should my house ever go up in flames.

All the people under my blazing roof will get sorted out first, and the guinea pigs, too, with or without my help. I’m only half-heartless. So we’ll start after that.

This was the list of what felt irreplaceable before today:

– my wedding album

– my double-dragon pendant

-my sister-in-law’s quilt

my wolf’s head sculpture

-and Lovey (You can read about Lovey here, and yes, I very well might run into a burning building for him. Who’d risk being haunted by that?)

And I might grab my computer, too. All my stuff is properly backed up, but it’s such a pain in the ass to set up a new computer, it might be worth a little smoke inhalation to be able to skip that.

Anyway. Now there’s something new.

See, the MacGuffin in my next book is a nearly four hundred year old painting—Landscape With Obelisk, by Govaert Flink.

Landscape with an Obelisk


That painting was part of the largest theft of personal property in the history of personal property.

On March 18th, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day spilled over into National Hangover Day, two policemen rang the bell at the closed-for-the-night Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. They said they’d received a disturbance call. The security guard let the cops in and, spoiler alert, they weren’t actually cops.

The museum guards got themselves tied up and the robbers spent just under an hour and a half liberating thirteen pieces from their frames and cases, to the tune of over $500 million.

And the artwork hasn’t been seen since.

Now my book doesn’t deal with the famous heist, per se. It doesn’t speculate who might have done this, or suggest a fictional investigative path for this notorious crime. But it does a what-if on the idea that a viral video reveals a glimpse, in a suburban home, of one of the lost pieces.

Landscape With Obelisk, is—in some estimation—one of the lesser treasures taken that day. For more than three hundred and fifty years, it was assumed to be a minor work by the Master, Rembrandt van Rijn. It’s not. It’s an imitative effort by one of his students, Govaert Flinck, a fairly terrific portrait artist who never made it big.

Nobody really knows why the thieves took it. By 1990, the art world had known for years that it wasn’t a Rembrandt, and there were much more valuable pieces that were left untouched, although the faux policemen had free rein in the museum for quite a while that night. The theft of the Flinck remains one of a number of things we can only shrug about where the Gardner heist is concerned.

But it made me imagine a story. So I wrote it.

And then I had to title it.

I like coming up with titles for my work a little bit less than I like getting MRIs. I can take a Valium for the claustrophobia and deal with an MRI.

Valium doesn’t help with titling. I tried.

This poor book went through no fewer than sixty-eight title suggestions. (I think it’s probably more than that. I’m pretty sure I just deleted some of the lists in teary fugues over the months.)

Do I believe in Divine intervention? Define ‘divine’ the right way and I might. Of all things, and after more hair-tearing than I’ve ever done over a title, a quote by the Master himself, Rembrandt, surfaced:

“Try to put well in practice what you already know, and in so doing, you will in good time discover the hidden things you now inquire about.”

Et voilà! The book is called THE HIDDEN THINGS.

It fits beautifully. The title nods and winks at the secrets in the story, and the discovery of those secrets, but also at the personal arc of one of the main characters who discovers essentially a superpower unleashed at watching herself do something impressive in the video. And she sees it all from outside herself, the one vantage point that would normally be forever hidden from her.

But Rembrandt’s quote also eloquently captures something I truly believe about life: You’re never starting from zero. Whatever the universe lobs at you next, you’ve been preparing for it since your first screaming breath. It may not feel the match of what eludes you or surprises you. It may not feel like enough. But the facts and intuitions you’ve been taking on board since Day One have set you up for the next thing. You know how to learn.

So not only did this quote save me from having a book with a blank cover, it made me—for the first time in my entire life—want an inspirational wall hanging.

I had his words put on a plank for my office wall.



And now, a confession.

I was so geeky about it that this plank is cut to exactly the dimensions of Flinck’s Landscape With Obelisk—71cm x 54.5cm.

Worse than that, the incredibly patient and wonderful people at The Blue Spruce Decor Co. cut the wood into three sections, just like the dimensions of the three oak panels that make up the stacked backing under the ancient gesso that Landscape With Obelisk is painted on: 20cm on 20.5cm on 14cm.

I like to imagine his master’s words were always there, hidden under the painting, and I have them now, discovered, beside me while I work on whatever I can’t title next.

This thing pleases me—a lot. It’s one of a kind. So I guess I’ll have to run back in during a conflagration. I suppose that’s the price for ever getting to be this pleased.

(And seriously, if you have a quote or a lyric or a saying you love and might like to have close at hand for your own inspiration, Danielle at The Blue Spruce is wonderful. She works with you enthusiastically to get exactly what you’re looking for. I wholeheartedly recommend them. It’s a beautiful piece.)

Occasionally, I write a poem…

It doesn’t happen often and I actually wrote this one a few weeks back, but I was just reminded of it, because my house is popping and creaking and startling me while I’m trying to work. The other day, from down the hall, I heard the sound of someone walking across my guestroom floor.

No one was there, of course. Of course.



I glimpsed the ghost in me
The rattle and knock
The cold spot already brewing
The foreknell in the floorboard
that does not yet squeak

Second sight and sixth sense
A pocket full of night

I test the balance of the trinkets
on the shelves
I wick the oil from the hinges
in the doors
I map the playground
of the small, fine hairs
at the back of your neck

Vanguard angry
for the time

When I am nothing but
a will peeled off its way


-Jamie Mason




Back to the Read-A-Thon that really wasn’t

So, it feels like a thousand years ago that I gave away copies of MONDAY’S LIE in exchange for reading assignments from the winners. But really it was only January.

Life rather shook things up, so the timeline of the original read-a-thon was, well, blown up. I am, however, completing my assigned reading as I can. It’s great fun. I love this contest and the books it leads me to.

I can mark off another on the list, LITTLE BEE, by Chris Cleave

Little Bee
This book was hugely successful and there is no mystery to its fate. It’s beautiful.

It’s the story of a Nigerian refugee who stows away from hell on earth in a shipping container bound for England. Adrift as an undocumented alien, Little Bee seeks out the British couple whose one and only interaction with her on a beach in Nigeria changed the lives of all the players forever.

Stunning, funny, insightful, and heart-breaking, LITTLE BEE is simply amazing.

Magpie moments: what catches my writer’s eye in real life

Many to most people are storytellers. It’s what we do, for any number of reasons – to report, to inform, to entertain, to warn, to make it so that everyone who comes after doesn’t have to start at zero. We don’t stand on the shoulders of giants as often as we stand on the shoulders of stories.

But for those of us prone to fiction, for those of us whose reports are things that simply never happened and never will, it’s funny what real life offers up as inspiration.

A few days ago, I was on an airplane. The captain announced that we’d all been good citizens and had got situated and accounted for in record time. He said we’d be able to pull away from the gate a few minutes early. So we did.

As we backed out from the jetway, there was a bit of drumming at the right side of the plane. The clatter was enough to have me say to my seatmate, “Ah, the reassuring banging just before takeoff.”

We laughed.

The plane rolled forward and headed to the runway. The banging didn’t stop. In fact, it picked up tempo and insistence. The flight attendants exchanged quizzical looks over their seatbelt seminar and we all realized, at just about at the same instant, that the frantic thumping was coming from the floor.

The flight attendant sprinted for the cockpit, calling to us as she ran, “Everybody stomp on the floor so he knows we hear him!” Presumably, this would keep him from having a heart attack, the poor soul who had landed himself locked in the undercarriage. He was clearly concerned for his safety or else he really, really, really didn’t want to go to Atlanta for some reason.

The plane stopped and someone let him out. Then we were back to normal and off to the friendly skies.

For fiction writers, there are a lot of embers there, in a lot of genres, glowing away in the heart of that little campfire tale. You could blow on any one of them and spark a story to life.

For me, I was caught on the thought of how adrenaline-spiked that man must have been. How hot did his blood burn when the plane started forward and picked up speed? Was he the sort who would laugh it off over a beer later that day, or is he still having nightmares even now? Did it strengthen his faith in the world, that things usually work out fine, or did it rattle him into a nervous wreck? Does he carpe diem more now, or does he check a dozen times that he’s locked the door and turned off the oven?

And how much mileage does he get out of the story of the day he almost went to Atlanta in the bottom of a 737? Is it enough to change a man?

It’s one of the best things, maybe even the very best thing, about being a fiction writer: the possibilities are endless. That’s also one of the harder things. If anything can happen, well, anything can happen. You have to herd those cats and bend the focus onto a rail that makes a beginning, a middle, and The End.

You have to wear blinders to keep on task, but also know when to snatch them off when you’re stuck or the plot is getting stale. You have to pick the right words to make the writing worthy of the imagined thing.

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” It’s true and that’s the hard work of the job. But the fun of the job is getting to be the guy who gets stuck in the belly of a plane without having to be the guy who gets stuck in the belly of a plane.



Some things that happen in life are simply too– too– well, too something to be used in fiction. They’re too stereotypical, too fantastical, too easy, or too impossible to use for representing anything that will look –or feel– like reality on the page.

Art imitates life every day, just as it should. But my art is only allowed to imitate my life when it won’t make me look like a hack. Maybe some writers who are bolder or more limber than I am can work their weirder moments into their stories, but I hold my stranger-than-fiction close. I hoard it because it keeps me alert. It keeps me wondering.

Since I’ll never make fiction of the little-big weirdness that happened at Oteen in May of 2006, I will tell you a true story instead, every word exactly as it happened to me. In the end, perhaps you’ll agree –or not– that rendering this little episode in a novel would be a mistake. It’s only a good story (or a shuddery one) because it really happened.

In the spring of 2006, I had just set my household in order after an extended out-of-state move. We’d finally hit a stride as a family and by early May, the new house felt like home. I knew where I was going and what I was doing. Winter was gone, summer was coming. And the old Oteen hospital was weighing on my mind.

When we’d first come to Asheville, we’d rented an apartment. We didn’t know which end of town would put our house money to the best use, so rolling the unfamiliar roads became a hobby of mine, criss-crossing the entire town, trying to get my home compass fluttering.

There had been a house for sale on the side of a mountain in the Riceville area. Ultimately though, the driveway up to that chalet-inspired deal-of-the-century daunted me. Three times I drove out there and three times I lacked the courage to point my car up a thirty degree slope with switchbacks. (Eleven years later, I find this very funny. After a while, you get used to the driveways around here.)

On the way to the house-I-never-saw, at the flat stretch after the first rise on Riceville Road, is the yellow stucco husk of the old Oteen hospital, a fixture on that spot since the late 1800s. Originally, it was a standard wooden construction of the period, a tuberculosis sanitarium in a time when the doctors believed that Asheville’s air was restorative.

Eventually it was rebuilt as a military hospital and became part of the Veteran’s Administration before falling into disuse after the construction of a more modern complex of facilities across the street. The beautiful Georgian Revival building was abandoned in the mid-1980s, and so was demoted to “the old Oteen hospital”.

oteen5 (250x184)

The fate of the structure was debated over twenty years while the asbestos in the old walls crumbled to poison flour on the floor. The windows broke (or more likely were broken) and the wiring licked through the cave-ins, as the years wore through the ceilings. Damp plaster moldered, green to black, and a wave of rust chewed red holes into the abandoned fixtures.

The woods behind Oteen crept closer. With no chainsaw or lawnmower to discourage them, the tentative strokes of vines and branches eventually exploded into a slithering frenzy over the façade.

Truly, the disintegration of Oteen was documentable. You could measure it and photograph it and shake your head over it. But the dread of the place, the full effect of standing there in the cold sigh of crazy as it poured over the gaping windowsills is something you just had to experience. Not one person I have ever led up there has proved immune to it.


As for me, I’m an unbeliever–with margins. Since my wisdom teeth grew in, I have never been able to sustain any conviction of the paranormal for longer than it took my heart to stop pounding in my ears after a bump in the night. But I have, at times, courted that bump in the night. I’ve sought it out in the weird hope that I could tarry for a while in those margins, maybe even live there part-time in the wondrous, shivery doubt of what if.

The fear that there’s something out there, something more, is also the hope of it. More, after all, is more, no matter what they say about less.

I wanted pictures of Oteen before some civic-minded someone finally got around to it and undid the projection of a hundred years of sickness, suffering, and war-dreams. The building had transcended eyesore–all of that trauma corralled within its walls, groomed into a monument by abandonment and two decades of neglect. There had been plenty of time for Oteen to ferment an aura that was potent enough to raise chills on even someone like me, someone a little numb to these things.

A shave and a haircut would surely civilize the place. A committee would dispatch a bureaucratic tailor to Riceville Road to recut the building’s straightjacket into a respectable blazer with a museum badge on it. But I wanted to preserve, as best my camera could, the way Oteen seemed to me. So on a brilliant spring day, I gathered up my purse and my Kodak and headed out.

I also brought with me my three year old daughter. And she brought Lovey.

Lovey has been with us since Rianne was two months old. You can see him here in this early photo, but what I realized in locating this picture is that if you look carefully, he’s somewhere in almost every photo of her until she was old enough to go to school. Lovey was draped across her eyes to shield her from her first dentist as he leaned in with gloved hands and a babytooth-ogling mirror. Lovey still comes with us on vacation. And there is some discussion of who will take custody of Lovey when Rianne goes off to college.

Lovey is family, but he has never been – with only one notable departure – anything but a stuffed toy.


I parked us in the middle of the service road that ran alongside the old hospital. I had no fear of interrupting any actual service to the building. Service was a long-dead concept at Oteen, probably last administered on-site by the fencing company that had blocked off the entrances.

A KEEP OUT sign had been hung on the chainlink, a warning to every single nobody who would listen. I suppose it had been a service of sorts to advise caution, but hooligans had long since cut a slit through the barricade.

I circled the north end of the building and back around, weighing up the sooty planes and angles for a shot that would stand in on photo paper for the hum of unease that broadcast from the place.

I had to rein myself in, paced to small, slow steps so that my littlest could keep up. She was attached to my right leg by a handful of cargo pants gripped in one dimpled fist. Lovey lolled in his usual pose, pinned into the crook of her other arm, so that she had him close to her heart while maintaining easy access to her thumb. This shining morning, as always, she was my silent child, a sweet cipher in a chattering world – head full of thoughts, mouth full of thumb.

I found my first shot and uncapped the lens. The screens of the porch fluttered in artful shreds around the rotted frames. I was restless before I’d even started, disappointed in advance of the shutter click. I already knew that the errand was an inevitable failure.

I had wanted to snare the vampire mood of Oteen, but it would be invisible in its photo reflection. I knew it even before I pressed the button: the photos would fall short. There would be no catching the spell of this place for memory. And I was right, but I was also wrong.


In the end, it wasn’t me who bottled the lightning. It sure as hell wasn’t the camera. And I don’t know what or whom to credit (or blame) for my three-year-old’s short string of rare complete sentences. She popped her thumb out of her mouth and tugged down on my pantsleg, then said the first – and only – disassociative thing she’s ever uttered.

“Lovey says there are ghosts here. Can I wait in the car?”

My instinct bucked and stampeded from its hidey hole somewhere up under my ribs, and it scared up a herd of stinging chills over my arms and shoulders. There was a riot in my head.

Calm on the outside, earthquake on the inside, I escorted my child’s request to its carseat. I was humoring her, maybe, or parenting with kindness. Yes, that was more the thing. The experts say you should respect a child’s fears, you should resist belittling her concerns— except that she didn’t look scared. She didn’t even look worried. She looked matter-of-factly fine: thumb back in place, head down, watching her own chubby legs pistoning away.

She was completely unfazed by stumping back to the car in pleasant resignation to the instructions of a fabric and rattle-headed comfort toy.

What did she know that I didn’t? But there’s no such thing. There aren’t any ghosts, and there’s no psychic warning so urgent that it sparks messages for us in the stuffing behind sweet little stitched eyes. Surely Lovey doesn’t have an opinion… Surely not.

Then I tried to go back and take the pictures anyway. I snapped a few hurried shots, but I never made it all the way to the dark side, into the gloom behind the hospital where the healthy trees on the outside of the fence dangled dying branches over the Oteen side. I couldn’t do it. Out of sight felt perilously like inviting myself out of my mind.

So I went home.

Perhaps there are ghosts at Oteen. Perhaps the restoration or demolition of the place will someday sweep them out. But when I’m not dabbling in the open space around my good sense, I doubt that there are any spirits there.

But the one thing I can never work down to a comfortable answer, the one thing that keeps this little exchange forever at hand in my memory, is how Rianne even knew the word or concept of “ghost” at that tender age.

I was extremely careful of what my children saw and heard for entertainment. We didn’t do even fluffy versions of the macabre. We hadn’t made any friends in Asheville yet, so there hadn’t been any playdates. She didn’t yet go to school. It was well many years after the Oteen incident before I introduced either of the girls to anything remotely spooky. They’d never even seen an episode of Scooby Doo.

This wasn’t because I was an unbeliever merely rubbishing what I usually think of as nonsense. It wasn’t even for the nobler reason of bubble-wrapping their fragile little psyches against the heebie-jeebies. No. It was all selfishness that kept the bedtime stories sunnier and the Halloween costumes friendly. I simply had no desire to be awakened in the middle of the night to chase the monsters out of the closets.

And for the most part – even on that night – it worked for Rianne, if not quite as well for me.

As for Lovey, our erstwhile ally in the margins, he has never imparted any further wisdom since May of 2006. He’s also never asked for anything to eat, or suggested an activity for the family’s downtime, or requested a song on the stereo in the car. And that’s a good thing. Lovey is sitting on Rianne’s bed even now, benignly mute, as he damned well should be.

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(Sadly, the few not-terribly-good photos I took of Oteen that day were lost in a computer crash years ago. The fantastic photos here are used, with permission. Thanks to Stephanie Rogers of Trances and Portents.)