A Picture May Be Worth A Thousand Words, But An Imagination Is Way More Efficient Than That

If you had someone encourage you to write when you were young, he or she may have said, “paint me a picture.” As it turns out, this would be the worst advice anyone would ever give you. Even more dire is it may be the foundation of what many people believe to be good writing, and it’s evident as one of the most pervasive problems I see in the work of new writers.

Sometimes I think, maybe one day, I’ll get to teach a creative writing class. I think I would really enjoy it, and I think I could be reasonably good at it. In these times of grand fantasy, I consider the lessons I might bestow upon the next generation of writers.

Chief among them would be, as the writer, you’re not the painter. You’re the person at the paint store. Your readers aren’t using your imagination. Your readers are using their imaginations.

As the author, you supply the materials for your reader’s imagination, which is there voluntarily and wants to work. It wants your help to run on its own. Once you learn that even a single word can jumpstart a reader’s imagination, you gain more freedom as a writer.

Consider that, at the beginning of this post, I mention you’re the person at the paint store, and maybe you imagined wearing an apron, seeing metal shelves filled with hardware, and smelling lumber and flowers in the garden shop. But I didn’t have to write any of that.

You certainly can, but you don’t have to, and discretion is one of the hardest things to learn as a writer because there is no right answer. It’s up to you. However, you don’t have to paint a picture. It’s your job to help your readers do that. Give them the paint.

All of this isn’t to say eloquent and beautifully complete descriptions of a person, place, or thing is immediately a dreaded info dump.

*glares at Herman Melville

Deep and rich prose can be satisfying and effective. You certainly don’t need to carve out all of the flavorful parts of the meat in some effort to achieve Cormac McCarthy status (I feel the need to state for the record I do, in fact, love Cormac McCarthy, but there’s only one of him, and you’re not him, nor am I). But you need to exercise restraint, and you need to know when you’ve done your job of sparking your reader’s imagination, and the ability to recognize that is something good writers possess. I’m not claiming I’m a good writer, but it might also comfort you to know that I don’t believe any writer is ever certain about this. For every writer, we must take it on some faith that our reader is doing their part. That is, in large part, what makes writing so hard, and ironically, the ability to identify your complete uncertainty is one indication that you are becoming a good writer.

So, if the ability of a writer to describe scenes in exhaustive, poetic detail isn’t how we define good writing, how do we define it? Is it purely subjective? No, it’s not. I’m not one of those people who believes anyone can define him or herself as a writer if they will it. I don’t think that does anyone, the literary community or the prospective writer, any good. Amorphous qualifications are self defeating in that, if anyone can be a writer as long as they believe really hard they are, it means being considered a writer, and being considered a good writer, is meaningless.

I don’t believe this means, to be a writer, you need to fit a certain mold. That also would be self-defeating.

I’ll write more about this next time. For now, just remember, if you’re beating your reader over the head with a deluge of prose in an effort to make him or her sense every atom in your imaginary space, you’re not, at present, exercising the skills I’d consider a good writer to possess, and I believe that for the simple fact that, while writing is a solitary art, storytelling isn’t a solitary experience. It takes teamwork, and a skillful writer allows their readers space to contribute.

P.S., if you noticed I ganked this from my Twitter feed:

A). It’s not plagiarism if I’m stealing from myself.

B). You’re probably the only person in the universe who cares enough to notice, so let’s hang out sometime.

Not you, Rudolph. You still need to observe the terms of the restraining order.