Various Art Forms:

My Imaginary Friends – April 24, 2022

Girl with magic box

Try to wrap your head around this: a book is a wholly imaginary thing until the author starts putting words down on paper or types them into a file. The characters are like imaginary friends. The setting is like a dream place. The time is indeterminate, also like a dream. The whole thing—or at least the parts of it that attracted the author in the first place—are just a series of pathways between neurons, sometimes present and active, sometimes dormant in the author’s mind. Sometimes dormant for years, until some aspect of daily living recalls them. And then they wake to semi-conscious life.

Similarly, a painting is an imaginary place or face or, in the case of abstractions, a mood or image, until the painter picks up charcoal or paint and begins outlining the basic structure, selecting colors, fleshing out—what a wonderful metaphor!—the details. And a symphony or even a simple song is just a whisp in the brain of the composer until he or she begins sounding out notes and chords, putting together the refrain, working out the details or, in the case of a full-blown orchestral work, arranging the parts for the various sections.

I’ve often said that being a writer is like renting half your mind to a troupe of actors who are trying out a new play. If you have an outline in mind, then the actors are rehearsing their lines and planning the staging. If you are “pantsing” it—that is, writing from the seat of your pants—then they are thinking up bits of improvisation and suggesting places they might like to go. They will awaken you in the middle of the night for a sudden inspiration about how the plot should advance, or sometimes for just the right word to insert into an already cast line of dialogue. Once you admit them to the stage at the back of your mind, they can be very insistent.

Of course, all of this material, the imagery, people, dialogues, faces and settings, melody and words, comes from the writer’s, painter’s, or composer’s subconscious—at least for me. Maybe some writers, painters, and composers can sit down and work out a story, image, or song from first principles, drawing from some mechanistic formula for structuring the work they want to accomplish. I can’t do that. I can’t think up a plot all in one setting and set a group of previously established character types to following it. Maybe that means I’m not a professional writer but instead a bumbling amateur, and so be it.

My ideas have to grow organically. I start with a situation, a setting, a dominant character. And these are things that I may have been ruminating for decades, slowly jotting down ideas and notes, putting them in folders, stashing them away. When one of these folders or simple files gets enough material together, I may then decide it will be the next book I tackle. That decision promotes it to active status, and I begin inviting the midnight players to set up shop.

Then the process of establishing characters, settings, story line, and plot points, collecting bits of trivia and lines of dialogue, and trying out scenes that will fit into the outline. Then I am simultaneously including or rejecting elements of the story: this bit fits but that one, attractive as it might be, does not. It is a process of feeling out the book, deciding based on subconscious clues that occur to me during the day or night—standing in the shower with hot water hitting my right should seems to be particularly fruitful—what the book will be.1

The book as it develops and reaches final form on paper, or as pixelated words on a screen and stored in a file, is almost never what the original idea seemed to be. Often that was just a whisp or a feeling, a sense of what a certain character might be, that does not stand up to scrutiny in my subconscious development or in the mouths of the midnight troupe. My characters have a way of developing themselves, of being offered certain plot points and choices and then rejecting them, of making clear which words they will say and which they won’t. That’s the organic process.

Working organically, from the subconscious, almost involving the characters as my imaginary friends, is the way I keep the story and the people in it “real”—at least for me. I have to believe in the story as I write, at least in the moment of actual creation of the words on what I call the “production draft.” Character names and attributes, plot developments, bits of dialogue, artifacts of the story, all exist as potentials to be chosen or not during the notes and the outlining stage of the book. But when I sit down to write “what really happened,” then things become awfully—as in “full of awe and wonder”—real. Then I am most fully in touch with my subconscious, envisioning the action and hearing the dialogue in my mind and recording it on the page.

Once those things are set in actual words, they become “sticky” and hard for me to change them. Of course, I do edit the draft: fix a word here and there, unscramble the thoughts in a paragraph, add a helpful line of dialogue or description—that’s just neatening up the text. But it’s difficult—sometimes next to impossible—for me to decide that what is set in the scene did not happen and that something else should have or must have happened instead. Once a thing is real in my mind, it is hard for me to decide that it is unreal. To do that, I have to move away from the story for a while, refresh my head with other things, and then sit down to a new understanding, all of which takes time. The old neuronal pathway has to decay a bit before a new one can replace it.2

This organic approach, and the steps I have to follow if I make a serious mistake in production writing, is why it takes me a year or more—sometimes decades—to conceive and develop a story, but usually only six to nine months to produce an actual manuscript.

And if, in the meantime, I seem suddenly to go blank and then reach for my pen and notebook, or any scrap of paper, it means I am silently communing with my imaginary friends.

1. And sometimes I suddenly realize that two book ideas must come together, that one complements the other, providing the story line for a different character or creating a setting that will work well with another book idea. Again, none of this is under my conscious control; things just bubble up from my subconscious.

2. I have never been able to follow the practice some writers suggest, of just throwing down on paper whatever is crossing your mind and hoping to correct it later in the editing process. If I don’t know what I’m going to write, if the story hasn’t “set” in my subconscious mind, then my production draft is usually nonproductive. I can spend paragraphs describing every leaf on a tree and every lamppost along the path, spinning my wheels in words looking for the story. And who can rescue that mush and push it into a story with a bit of clever editing?