Tuesday, 28 October 2008

On the Frustrations of an Inadequate Imagination

One of the annoying things about trying to write - stories and poems, I mean - is never really knowing what to put, and sitting here with a vague concept in mind, or a scene of some kind, or sometimes just a word, and then attempting to make something of it. Generally I don't put enough effort in, and I flick through various bits of music on iTunes, or I scribble and delete stuff, or I just end up doodling. I am not very good at doodling but I have a nice way with sort of squares and diamonds and straight lines. This blog is a sort of linguistic doodle.

I read somewhere (I think it was Ted Hughes) that you need to train your imagination, and develop it like a muscle. I have been trying that lately, by writing things of different genres. It has been frankly toe-curling to read the results. Not only have I chosen genres which I should stay well away from and don't even read, but what have I come up with isn't even a morass of sentiment and cliche; it's just meaningless verbiage, duckspeaking. This work has issued from my fingers with no input from my higher brain centres at all.

And yet the sheer number of words I have declaimed to Microsoft Word lately: 4000 on Wednesday last week, with 2000 most days before and since for around two weeks. How can so many words say so little, and how can they be so poorly arranged?

The problem for me - and, I suspect, many tenth rate authors - is that my range of sympathies and interests, and therefore imaginations, is narrow. So I have to force the imagination into action. And if one's imagination works like a slightly surreal film, then on these occasions mine is like a three year old's picture done in very heavy blue crayon. But for so long I have failed to do this, and have just focused instead on the "things I know" (to quote a writerly phrase), that I have exhausted these things, and been left with a paucity of spirit and creative soul.

It has also left me quite astonished at how little I do know. Even of the daily things of life: the materials of clothes, the looks of emotions, the workings of televisions, the ingredients of famous dishes. I know nearly nothing at all about colours, different types of rain, types of cloud, the appearances of the sky in different seasons: in short, the stuff of observation which is supposed to characterise writers.

Which makes me wonder: what on earth have I been doing all these years? Why have I failed to retain so much of what I must have seen and even noticed at various times? It must be because I have not really been interested enough in the world around me. In me - yes, for sure. In the outside of me - hmmm. It all seems too much like reflections of my moods, which means I either ignore it, love it or loathe it. Finer distinctions, such as would come from a genuine interest in life and the world, seem to escape me.

I don't think I can be a writer because I am too uninterested in the mechanics of existence.

That doesn't stop me wanting to pour out words, and sometimes in great quantities, very quickly. It just means I have to do it into the void, which wouldn't be a void if I had paid more attention earlier on.


Matt M said...

Writing is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.


With me it's 1% inspiration, 3% perspiration, 36% thinking about writing, 60% trying to find something other than actual writing to do.

Crushed said...

I'm not sure your theory necessarily pans out.

I do much of the conceptualising behind my posts stood at the bar of the Westcroft staring at the bottles in the fridge.

The Tin Drummer said...

I didn't know you were a writer, Matt (though it doesn't surprise me). Your experience sounds similar to mine: I'd up the 60% to at least 75% though.

jmb said...

A writer I am not, but I always thought rather than needing an active imagination one needed to be a good observer of people and the world around one. Well unless you are writing Fantasy or SciFi.

Two to four thousand words a day does not sound like avoiding writing to me. Maybe you should go in for the NaNoWriMo.

The Tin Drummer said...

crushed: sounds interesting. I tend to read in the pub and ideas conceived when drunk are horrendous anyway (see TTD posts passim!!).

jmb: I have tried that before! I only got to 15000 words though. I do know someone - a teenager - who managed it, a couple of times over!

Matt M said...

I did three years of Creative Writing at university. Not much has come of it though - a handful of short scripts and a skip-load of ideas that never came to anything.

The trick to it, so I've heard, is to just write and not worry too much about whether it's good or not. It's like running a marathon: You don't just turn up on the day and expect to make it to the finishing line - you build up your stamina with shorter, insignificant runs in the months leading up to it. Most writing should just be for training purposes. That way, when the big idea comes to you, you're ready for it and can jump right into it.

ideas conceived when drunk are horrendous anyway

In my experience, most ideas turn out to be rubbish in the end. 99% of the time my writing process goes like this:

a) Come up with great idea
b) Develop idea - realise it's crap
c) Try to rescue idea
d) Sob
e) Come up with great twist on idea
f) Repeat b, c, d, e, and f

The Tin Drummer said...

That's interesting, Matt. I always had you down as a philosopher.

The way you describe is sort of the way I'm doing it - I'm trying to write a children's novel and I'm trying out scenes, characters, etc.

And as for your six point process - sadly similar to mine. For me, a) is the best bit, where you are ecstatic with this idea, and then b) the most crushing, when you realise (usually the next day) that it was rubbish, just like all the other ideas.

Matt M said...

You should check out this site if you're looking for inspiration:


This piece of advice, from their '34 Writing Tips That Will Make You A Better Writer', seems particularly apt:

In a sentence: write daily for 30 minutes minimum! It’s easy to notice the difference in a short time. Suddenly, ideas come to you and you think of other things to write. You experiment with styles and voices and words and the language becomes more familiar…

If only I had the self-discipline to stick to it myself.