the creative process

One of my many horrible habits is reading a lot of…blogs. It’s one way to keep my vanity in perspective, especially when it comes to blogs about writing/getting published/getting yourself ‘out there’ as a writer – or a writer-wannabe.

You see, a good many of these blogs are exercises in humility. (Which could also be said of writing.) No matter what you think, you will never be …good enough, never mind good enough to publish. You will never get to the point where you have “arrived” as a writer, unless you started in the Seventies and have remained a best-selling author ever since.

I can handle that. I can handle being told that no matter what I think, I have not one original idea in that pathetically pea-sized cerebellum at the tip of my spinal cord. I can handle that I will unlikely ever become a published writer. I can even manage to overlook the appalling amount of crap that does get published, just to discourage the rest of us who are arrogant enough to believe in the stories we tell, rightly or wrongly.

But when I recently came across a blog discussing the perils of imagination, I blew a mental safety valve or two.

One writer – published, promoted, with a certain reputation – was accosted by a fan at a book convention. Before I incriminate myself any further, may I say I am in no position to pass judgment on this writer, never having read her, but the implications that lay hidden in that fan’s criticisms made me think…big time.

She was asked by this fan if she had ever been to a location mentioned in one of her stories. She told him no, that it was all her imagination and a bit of research. The fan, obviously a product of the ‘reality TV’ generation, then bashed her over the head with: “But how can I ever take you seriously as a writer again? I thought you had been there! I thought you were cool, and now, I can’t believe a word you write any longer!”

Which was around the time I blew that valve…

So imagination is a liability for a writer? WTF???????

Ahem. If we apply that criterion to some of the Late and Great, well, whaddaya know…there go…Jonathan Swift, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe and entire collected works of Jules Verne, to name very, very few…erhmmm…how about all sci-fi ever written? Heinlein invented several alternate timelines in his stories, but do you think he ever actually experienced them?

Of course he did – except not literally. He had…imagination, one of the few things left in this cynical world which gives yours truly any hope for humanity’s future.

You could apply that to whichever field you choose: imagination gave us the benzene molecule, the general theory of relativity, quantum physics, ‘Das Kapital’, the Sistine Chapel and all of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and the ‘Ring of the Nibelungen’. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. And. And. And.

Feel free to add to that list. It would make for a very, very long list. Once upon a time, for instance, all painted art was either representational and/or devotional – and often, both. It was until a Dutch painter in the late 15th century either suffered a bad case of ergot poisoning or a bad attack of imagination and created the triptych called ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. The art world has never quite recovered.

Just as that writer had never been to a pivotal place in her story, except in her head, I have…never been to New York as an adult, never met the Devil in a café, and I have never set foot in the music venue in Copenhagen I used as the model for ‘Alcatraz’.

Someone I know quite well is writing a crime thriller about a female serial killer of a kind that makes Hannibal Lecter seem like a milquetoast wimp, and so far as I know, she is so soft-hearted, she has a hard time swatting flies and mosquitoes in summer.

It all comes back to…imagination. Imagination, where time and space are irrelevant, where anything can happen and often does, where our only limitations are in how far we dare to follow – a dream, a story, a possibility that may or may not happen.

If limitations were an issue, if he were confined to the world around him, Hieronymus Bosch would never have given us that triptych of phantasmagorias, Da Vinci would never have invented the helicopter or the tank or even painted the Madonna of the Rocks, and Dr. Fleming would never have discovered penicillin. If not for imagination, we would never have made it to the moon, or even Mars. If not for imagination, we might as well do ourselves in, because it’s only when we dare to dream, dare to exercise our imagination that we can dream a way out of whatever pickles we find ourselves in.

If that fan at that convention had dared to follow his own thought through, he should have realized that the conviction that made him believe the author had, in fact, been to the location of her story was a testament to her imagination. She made him believe – that it happened, that she was there, that, by extension, he was there, and what he really objected to was not a lack of reality, but that he had been misled – by his own imagination, and isn’t that the purpose of fiction?

I can imagine – that some day, in some future, I will be able to write something someone else will want to read. I can imagine that those words will have relevance and importance above and beyond whatever flies through my pea brain at the moment of writing it.

The one thing I can never, ever imagine – is being without imagination. Even reality is a construct – it’s all a question of perspective, and how can you have perspective if you have no imagination?

Image: Detail of Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”

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Sometimes, it’s a good thing to plug out the plug, disconnect from the universal grid, and do something entirely different from your daily routine. Sometimes, that can teach you a lot about yourself, your priorities (or the lack thereof) and where you energy should go.

For the past five weeks, I have been on vacation. I haven’t been anywhere exciting, or done too much that would be considered “interesting”. So far as anyone could tell, I have very much been right where I’ve always been.

So far as anyone could tell, I could just as easily have fallen off the face of the planet altogether, and in a manner of speaking, I have.

For the first time in a long, long, time, I have allowed myself to fall into:
a) the time warp of my book, and the rest of the world be damned.
b) books. Lots. Of. Books. History books and short story anthologies and source books and biographies and historical potboiler books. I used to pride myself on being a three-a-week person. Since the arrival of Damien, that went downhill fast. In a day and age where everything happens instantaneously, where we’re looking for fast – food, fixes, thrills, I had forgotten the indecent pleasures of staying up until 2 AM – reading.
c) the fine art of what the Italians call “dolce far niente”, or – “how sweet to do – nothing.” Contemplating the vagaries of existence, fine-tuning the art of making the perfect cake, or simply staring out into space and thinking – nothing at all, which has a lot to recommend it.

Most of all, and most important of all, I have been – writing the Effing Book. 10 – 15 pages a day, going back and ditching most of them, fine-tuning until it reads like poetry and flows like mead – sweet, smooth and golden.

All the while being only too aware of Colette. Once upon a time, Colette was approached by an ardent fan, a very young man. He had finally summoned up the courage to see La Grande Dame with his manuscript. She asked him to return in a few weeks. He did. Breathlessly, he asked: “So, Madame. What did you think about my book?”

Madame looked him up and down, marvelling at the impatience of youth. “It is a fine book, a magnificent book. Now, chéri, go take out all the poetry!”

I am preparing myself for the day when an editor slashes all those poetic passages I loved so much to write.

And meanwhile, I’m trying not to second-guess myself. Figuring out what happens next and in what order, figuring out points of view, untangling conflict and motive, realizing how little I know about what it means to be young and male in the testosterone-soaked society of Iron Age Ireland, realizing just how much the story has changed from first to third draft. What was once a Harlequin bodice-ripper of a sort became an action adventure story and then became – something else entirely. The characters took over and demanded to be heard. They still do, yelling in ancient Irish in my dreams, the dreams that do not include unlikely situations with metal gods who aren’t getting any younger, either.

When I get really stuck, I send a fervent thank-you to the inventors of Google Earth, who take me where I need to go when I need to kick-start my imagination.

So if I have been missed, if you have been wondering, that’s where I’ve been. I will be back. Eventually.

Now, excuse me please. I have to scare the bejeesus out of a Roman with pneumonia!

So long as I don’t take out the poetry!

Image: Cow Parade, “Meditating cow”

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