August 11, 2010

A Failure of Imagination

What I’m Reading Today: Some wonderful Eudora Welty stories from the collected stories. Oh why didn’t I discover her 20 years ago? And have you seen her photography? (She took the iconic photo on the cover of Edward P. Jones's The Known World.)

I remember in 1999 writing the first chapters of my first novel ~ the one I’m revising now ~ and one of my first big epiphanies was that writing is nothing more than a series of resisting clichés. I quickly figured out that the first thing that came to mind was always a cliché. You see the world in categories, and you apply stock phrases to it. It’s a very necessary part of a life, a tool that allows us to make it through out day, taking a lot of things for granted and not having to consider every sense impression that comes our way.

I was more focused on sentence-level clichés, but since then I’ve realized that clichés happen at the scene- and story-level too. They’re set pieces, things that people have seen a million times. I did not realize this at the time, though; hence, some of the shortcomings of that first draft.

As I’m revising that first novel, I realize that one of my shortcomings on it was a failure of imagination. I was struggling so much when I wrote it just to get the sentence-level clichés out of the way, I didn’t get far beyond them. Sure, I did get a surprising image here and there, but it was so much work just to get past them that I didn’t push much past them.

Now, as I go back, I realize that one thing I’ve learned is to push and push and push. To ask why? and how? and where? Instead of moving on to the next plot point, so that there’s nothing but action and dialog, I linger and look at what the protagonist is looking at and think about backstory and whether I should include that backstory and I let things roll around and I look for lots and lots of details. The only way the reader is going to see what I see, and what the protagonist sees, is if I slow it down a bit and make it a tapestry of impression.

So this is what I see as the failing of some writers early in their careers, and certainly it was mine: a failure of imagination. I needed to keep pushing, keep putting it on the page, fight that western sparity, not to go too far and make it “constipated” as one friend said but instead make it lush.

Questions of the Day: How has your style changed over the course your writing career? As a reader, can you detect a failure of imagination?


Brad Green said...

A very cogent and vital point. Those structural elements that are clichéd are the hardest to recognize. What's helping me in that regard is reading the submissions queue at literary journals. Repetition quickly becomes evident then.

Of course, pushing too far disrupts our ability to participate in narrative and the work suffers from a lack of reach. It's a delicate line that must be tread. But that's a clichéd line, isn't it?


Tamara said...

I bet reading the submissions queue helps in so many ways! You are bludgeoned with the cliches on all levels.

Yes, I definitely agree. You need to balance newness with received form! And you don't want to put in every detail you think of or you may end up like Proust (fascinating as his writing is).