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Learning to See Double
On Taking an Imagination Walk to Generate Fiction
This is a newsletter about writing, but I need to lead with my daughter today: not because I am that kind of parent, but because when writing about giving the imagination free rein, the best place to start is with a six year old who has not yet forgotten how to do that.
Even though she is only six, my daughter is already firmly possessed of the same belief that I am: that any downtime not spent imagining something is wasted time. Which is why we have decided that our daily walks to school will be what we think of as imagination walks. We don’t always succeed; neither of us is good at mornings, so sometimes we wind up just walking together in companionably grumpy silence. Sometimes it becomes more of a question walk: How did every pet you’ve ever had die? What happens if you just keep drinking water forever, would you drown? But as often as we can, we take a true imagination walk, where the goal is to create a new story together in the twenty or so minutes it takes to walk down our city street and through the side neighborhood to the sprawling brick school building.
No doubt this is entirely the fault of my dubious improv background, but we usually pick a quest and then build it using what we see and hear around us. We have saved firefly fairies trapped in streetlights, run from leaf monsters in the Bad Wood, and left offerings for forest spirits in the Good Wood. Lest this all sound unbearably treacly and fanciful, like the beginning of a certain kind of British children’s story, I should add that we often spend half the quest talking shit about people or having a meltdown (SOME of us, that is) because SOME of us forgot to bring the proper ration of Kleenex along. Sometimes my ideas are dumb and she tells me so, and children also really suck at “yes, and;” they fucking love to say no to everything. Still, some days we do fit in a pretty good adventure, and I think the not-writing-but-actually-writing part of writing works the same way.
Like most of you, the majority of my actual writing does not get done sitting here in front of my computer. I am constantly writing in my head, taking a series of imagination walks each day. I may look like a small potato in a puffy coat, power-walking down the street, but I’m actually a possibilities machine. I’m constantly playing with ways of looking at the world around me, of imagining other possibilities, other arrangements, other weathers. Instead of monsters in the little copse of trees we call the wood, maybe there are human bones, piles and grisly piles of them. Maybe there are cigarette butts and beer bottles. Maybe a woman is alone there, crying. Or maybe she is digging a very small hole.
I don’t want anyone to trip over a curb or get run over by a car - I don’t think your imagination walk should take you out of the world completely - but I do think it’s important to develop the ability to see this kind of double world over your own, as a writer. Not only does it help generate ideas, it also grounds even your most surreal or fantastic writing, gives it weight and a sense of the real that is too often missing from a lot of beginning writers’ work. When I was reading slush for literary magazines, one of the biggest problems I encountered was what I think of as balloon characters: big character heads sort of floating around untethered, having conversations in an undefined, unreal space. They never seem to have jobs, or bodies. Occasionally, you might actually want to write that kind of a story (see Calvino) but most of the time, you’re going to want to give your characters business and a place to be.
If you’ve ever read The City and The City by China Miéville (and I hope you have or will), you’ll know what I mean. In that novel, two cities share the same physical space, but due to something called the Breach, the citizens of both cities are not supposed to notice. In fact, they’re trained from childhood to “unsee” the other city: the people, the events, the buildings, everything. It takes a particular kind of person to untrain themselves, to be able to see both worlds superimposed. But that’s exactly what a good writer must do. A good writer has to be able to forget what they’ve learned: that this man standing at the bus station is the only man here. The good writer must be able to train herself to see all the possibilities. The man is not alone; he’s with his lover. The man suddenly disappears. The bus stop is actually a portal, and suddenly a thousand circus clowns walk through. The man is a woman, is a child, is an alien trying to get home. There are thousands of cities in the city - or towns in your town, or neighborhoods in your neighborhood - and the writer must be able to see them all. To do so will give the writer ideas, but even more, it will give the writer’s ideas grounding, depth, a sense of place and person and purpose. And seeing another city will give you a kind of emotional clarity that might be difficult to achieve just looking at your own.
In his fantastic craft book The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo writes that “the poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another.” (The book is about poetry, but I find it works equally and brilliantly well for fiction.) He writes:
The stable set of knowns the poem needs to anchor on is less stable at home than in the town you’ve just seen for the first time. At home, not only do you know that the movie house wasn’t always there, or that the grocer is a newcomer who took over after the former grocer died, you have complicated emotional responses that defy sorting out. With the strange town, you can assume all knowns are stable, and you owe the details nothing emotionally…[in the strange town] it is easy to turn the gas station attendant into a drunk. Back home it would have been difficult because he had a drinking problem.
Or, as Charles Baxter puts it in Burning Down the House:
What I would argue is that the truth that writers are after may be dramatic only if it has been forgotten first: if the story, in other words, pulls something contradictory and concealed out of its hiding place.
There’s something there, in that copse of trees, that keeps pulling you to it. You need to write it. But you have to squint, look at it sideways, forget everything you know about those trees and instead write a new set of trees over the old one. Only then is your imagination free to say the things it needs to about fear, loneliness, the spare sadness of a little green in the middle of a lot of grey. You have your concrete, well-painted setting: the trees, the trees! (Sorry Iris Murdoch.) But you also have the mystery of the OTHER trees, the trees that only exist in your head. You have the freedom to put anything in that copse of trees you want to.
I had a novel in progress during the pandemic, but it changed significantly because I was changing, trapped in my apartment and denied the expansiveness of my former life. I spent a lot of that time imagining a world over my world. The daily trip to the garbage bins became my protagonist’s journey; I imagined a seance being held in the the quiet and darkened laundry room. The apartment building next to mine is only a few feet away, so the people who live in the apartment opposite ours seem almost like our roommates at time. What if they weren’t a family with two parents and a kid, but instead a mysterious and beautiful woman living alone? A recluse? I was able to use all these ideas to write a novel that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with what was important to me.
Since I am a woman, I am constantly asked if my fiction is about me and my life. And it isn’t! At all! But! I often write real PLACES, in part because I am great at making up people and not so great at making up settings. I find if I let a place I know unfold like a pop-up book - if I take an imagination walk through it - that I can coax out all sorts of interesting stories and people and events, a proper treasure hunt of weirdness. I find that if I see the city over my city, I can find the freedom I need to write a story with real stakes, and the control I want as a writer to direct my characters in any way that I please. And I find that it can also get me out of my own head, which is incredibly important for a writer. It’s a perfect balancing act, especially if you’re a character writer first and foremost. And it’s no different, I suppose, than children playing with dollhouses: a series of linked rooms as constraints, and the million wonderful stories that spring up within them.