Wednesday, September 03, 2008



I've been thinking a lot lately about the power of the imagination and how critical it is to the creative process. It might seem silly to write something like this; imagination is obviously the genesis of many an idea. Cynics will also say that every person in New York city has 50 pages of a novel tucked away in a drawer, but that a lack of skill/discipline/stamina eventually thwarts these would be writers. Everyone thinks they have imagination. And there's a certain amount of truth to that. Writing is difficult and does take a nose-to-the-grindstone dedication.

But over and over again, I'm reminded of how powerful and important imagination is to every step of the creative process. All the skill and control in the world will fall flat if you can't imagine a world in detail. If you fail to imagine, then you will fail to communicate. The imagination, in other words, isn't just a tool to use to start a project; very often, it will be what saves your work.

I'm in the final edits of my novel right now, and without jinxing myself, I feel very positive about the work I'm doing. I've never been the kind of person to have difficulty relinquishing a project; when it is done, I am happy to let it go. I don't have much interest in revisiting it, but I also don't torture myself with what might have been. (I leave that to other areas of my life).

At the risk of sounding too abstract, I read over a key chapter a couple of weeks ago, and was appalled by how flat it "felt." I often think that the difference between music and writing is very fine; good writing and good storytelling ought to have an effect that is similar to music, which is to say, it should, simply, have an effect on the reader. It shouldn't just tickle the intellect. There's plenty of writing I like that is cerebral in nature, but I feel that fiction as an art form should do more than make you think; it should make you feel. Hence the music analogy.

It's difficult when editing to deal with an abstraction along the lines of: "I don't like how this makes me feel." Even harder is articulating why something "feels" wrong and how to fix it to make it "feel" better. And for me, that's where imagination comes into play.

When a scene, a character, or a plot point fail, I can't always fix it by using some technical solution. It isn't always a matter of editing prose, or turning summary to scene, or changing an unoriginal metaphor. Sometimes the solution requires using the imagination to really rewrite what is on the page. To do that successfully, I at least have to really immerse myself in the world and think seriously about my characters and their feelings and what they might do. In other words, I have to revisit what I've created, and use my imagination to "see" everything better.

When my husband--who is my most important reader--used to read these "failed sections," he would often say to me, "It's about plot." (He still calls me sweetie, even when he is stern like this). And I would retort, "No, it's not. It's about character." Because it is. If you can't imagine and feel for your people, then you don't know what they will do and you can't see the world they live in. It's only when you truly imagine your characters that the magic happens--new plot points and details and themes open up. Then the writing is easy.

It's an abstract thing I'm trying to convey, but I think that's because for me at least, it all happens in this strange and unconscious way. Esoteric things are always difficult to write about. But once I know that the world and its characters have been completely imagined, then the rational side of my brain can kick in and do all sorts of interior decorating: kicking out unnecessary sentences, tidying up paragraphs, searching for more original language.

The funny thing--for me at least, and I say this as someone who does not have an MFA--is that I never see this kind of thing in craft books. There are some wonderful books on writing that I like and which have given me insight into the craft element of writing. But I've never actually seen or read feedback from a so-called expert which said: Go back and reimagine what is on the page. But this time, do it more deeply.

I just wish that in understanding all this, the process would go faster. But there is probably no short-cut.

oo, good advice re: imagining more deeply.

that's the most fun part, anyway.
The second best writing advice I ever read basically said: whatever you imagine happens next, throw that out. It's probably a cliche or unoriginal. The next idea will be better.

The best advice was: Sit your butt down and write. But I suspect that's more helpful for me than you.
Ha! Some days I do need to be told to just sit down and work . . . actually, it is always easy to work when you know what you are supposed to do. ;-)
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