Friday, 26 November 2010


I have decided to give certain clever and interesting people a Soap-Box platform on my blog. The first one is for Vanessa Gebbie, ace and clever writer, mostly of short fiction. Her brand-new and fabulous collection of short stories, Storm Warning, is published by Salt Modern Fiction. (Hooray - another Christmas present idea!)

Here she is, unplugged.

IMAGINATION versus REALITY by Vanessa Gebbie

Let me tell you a story. There was this bloke who read a story what I wrote, set somewhere else – lets call it ‘Not Near Home’.
‘Marvellous story’, he said. ‘When did you go there? I’ve been there, it’s great isn’t it?!”
‘Er. No, I’ve never been there,’ I said.
‘Really? Well, erm. Well – why write a story there then? I mean why not stick to places you HAVE been to?’
‘Because the characters were dealing with things that don’t happen Near Home.’
‘Ye-es. But. Why not stick to things that DO happen Near Home?’
‘Er. Because that’s not what comes out when I switch on the writing machine – you know? You said it was a marvellous story. So it worked.’
Silence. Then, ‘But now I know you haven’t been there, it won’t be a marvellous story any more.’
What is going on? I write fiction. Fiction tends to be made thanks to the imagination. Usually.

Second story. Another person bought ‘Storm Warning’ – second collection – details below. War stories, it’s subtitled ‘Echoes of Conflict’ and has an endorsement on the front cover that uses the words ‘harrowing’ and ‘pulls no punches’ (thanks Peter James!), so it is not going to be gentle romances, is it?

Question: ‘How can you write about war? You’ve never been in one.’

I repeat, What IS going on?

I wonder if, when Marquez wrote ‘Light Like Water’ his readers complained that boats can’t float on light actually, so “just get real, right”? Or if, when Tolkein came out with ‘The Hobbit’, or ‘Lord of the Rings’, his mates took him aside and suggested he bought new glasses because people don’t have hairy feet, and mostly they don’t tend to live in holes in the ground, and there aren’t giant spiders, and Ents and Orcs, and Gollums and and and…

Nah. Of course not. Because back then, in them days, the world was different. Kids were still being fed fairy tales, feeding their imaginations, and an adult with an extraordinary, creative imagination was something accepted.

Now, what are kids doing? Watching Reality This, Reality That. Playing computer games with ‘Real!!” graphics. ‘Real’ blood n guts.  Even bloody kid’s dolls … oooh don’t get me started on dolls. Dolls started crying ‘real’ tears yonks back, didn’t they?  But see, dolls had always cried real tears in children’s heads – and the makers were not giving those little girls a gift, they were actually taking something away when those dolls appeared on the market.

I went to a workshop once, a long while back. There were a range of writers there, young, old, male and female.  Two much younger writers, fresh out of a University CW course. We all read and commented on each other’s work, watched and helped by the tutors.  There was one piece –and the comments were split. The older writers said helpful, considered stuff -  and the two young writers said another. ‘I can’t get my head round this piece’ one said. ‘It’s the setting. I like to know where Tesco’s and the lavs are, or it doesn’t feel real to me. And why on earth does this bloke do that? Blokes don’t DO that.’

That was my piece of work. I know it’s fine, because it’s had plenty of good things happen to it since. But the town lives, exists, sings, buzzes, because of the characters, because of the places they need to be, their homes, kitchens, bedrooms, pubs, pavements, libraries, chapels, back yards, caravans, because of the interactions, the history, the mountains surrounding it, the air, the scents, the losses, the little triumphs, the sadnesses. 

No Tesco’s. No lavs. So these two younger writers couldn’t sink into the fictive dream.  I bet their dolls cried ‘real tears’ and probably wet their nappies with ‘real wee’ as well.

Where is imagination? Do we need it at all? Are we allowed to imagine now, or will there always be someone who asks where Tesco’s is? Or who decides a story is no longer marvellous because they discover the writer hasn’t visited the precise setting?

Think about it.  Imagination allows us to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, or lack of shoes. It allows us to empathise. To experience emotions as memory. To gift those emotions to our characters to bring them to life.  To slip into the skin of a soldier. A widow. A child. 

Write your story. Don’t block the imagination. And research afterwards will give you a few details to co ground the story in its correct setting.

Settings? C’mon. A few grains of sand carefully placed can make a whole desert. An old wall, a bit of pavement, a bus stop and a few characters can create a whole town.

Biography: Vanessa Gebbie is a prizewinning short story writer, a creative writing teacher, novelist, poet and editor. She teaches widely, working with writing groups, universities, school students and at literary festivals. In 2010, she was writer-in-residence at Stockholm University, Sweden.

She is author of two collections of short fiction, Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning (both published by Salt Modern Fiction). Her work has also been anthologized and published in many literary magazines, in print and online.

In 2009, she was commissioned to compile, edit and contribute to a textbook on writing short fiction. The result: Short Circuit, A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, a collection of essays and writing exercises by prize-winning short fiction writers, is now in use at many creative writing courses in the UK and abroad. It is endorsed by the organizers of The Bridport Prize, the Asham Award for new women writers, The Fish International short story competition and the Frank O'Connor Award among others.

Her novel The Coward's Tale has been completed thanks to a UK Arts Council Grant for the Arts.

Thanks, Vanessa - interesting stuff. Any comments, anyone? I certainly find it mesmerisingly annoying and incomprehensible when people ask how I can write about something I've never done or experienced. Is it just the thing that separates writers from non-writers, or what? But non-writers can have wonderful imaginations, too, can't they?


Sophie Playle said...

This topic came up in our creative writing class a few weeks ago when we were talking about 'place'. I think most of us came to a similar conclusion.

Fiction writers write fiction - and sometimes people have to remember that.

All well said, V.

BuffySquirrel said...

Great article!

Vanessa's short story 'Jamie Hawkins' Muse' was published in GUD Magazine Issue 2 (see preview here: and GUD also reviewed "Words From a Glass Bubble" here:


Marisa Birns said...

Yes, I think that "write what you know" business has gotten out of hand.

There was a time when children spent the day playing and imagining all sorts of things. My sister and I used to put on plays that we improvised as we went along (poor family members).

You're so right. Technology has made so many things easier, better...but I fear that some things have been lost in translation.

And perhaps carefree imagination is one of them.

BuffySquirrel said...

Personally, I like to interpret 'write what you know' as 'know what you write about'.

Catherine Hughes said...

I am currently writing about creatures who look like a cross between a cat, a horse, and a frog - my characters saddle and ride them and they can leap over huge fences with their powerful back legs, making quick getaways a speciality. If you've ever ridden a horse (and yes, I have) this would be like horseriding squared - faster, wilder, even more exhilarating.

Half set in a fictional Welsh town whose main feature is its bookshop, and half in an imaginary world where people sleep in caves lit by pinprick channels through the rock that let in the light of the outside world, I couldn't, even if I wanted to, go where my story goes.

But I'm still writing what I know - horses, Welsh towns, bookshops, sixth-form college, martial arts, love, loss, courage. I'm just serving it up with a bit of imagination!!

(I hope!)

Cat x

BuffySquirrel said...

Sounds great, Cat--altho I have difficulty enough staying on horses of the regular variety :D.

jonathan pinnock said...

Great post, Vanessa. It's very odd, isn't it? But it's not the first time I've come across that kind of thing.

*rummages in blog*

Ah, this is it:

Sally Zigmond said...

Thanks Vanessa (and Nicola). I hadn't really thought about this deeply before but now I can see how true it is. A collective failure of the imagination is endemic these days--at least in popular culture. There has always been a general suspicion of people who 'make things up' but now it is more than that. It's considered ant-social. Being a 'loner' or someone who lives in his or her imagination is seen as an indication of psychopathic tendencies.

BuffySquirrel said...

Hmm, I think my razor-sharp Viking sword is a greater indication of my tendencies.

Catherine Hughes said...

Oh, Sally, in that case, sign me up as a psycho!!

I would never have survived some of the worst times in my life without books and the ability to merge my imagination with that of their authors. I've hidden in a good book more times than I can remember.

And my middle daughter, whose brain injury has made so much of her life very difficult, does the same thing. Having an imagination gives her confidence. She gets lost in books in a way even I can't - imagining alternative endings and other possibilities within the framework of the book.

We'd be completely hopeless without our imaginations. I can't understand why anyone would want to live without one!

@BuffyS - Well, I hope so but, as you know (I think) I am one of the great unpublished so it could just be utter crap. Imaginative utter crap but stil..!

steeleweed said...

I would rather read a play than see it performed, simply because my imagination is better than most actors. Only very gifted ones can bring something to a role beyond the playwright's words and better than my imagination.

What I find amusing/disturbing is that a generation is growing up with lots of virtual experiences but few real ones. Imagination was always an alternative to reality, but we understood that our imaginary world was an optional indulgence. We were in control of the process. We are not in control of the technology which has been distancing distancing people from reality. A generation seems to have lost the ability to distinguish between Real and Virtual. It's a disaster and a terrible loss, for readers more than writers.

womagwriter said...

I think sometimes it depends on whether the reader/commenter knows the writer or not. Vanessa's first commenter would have continued thinking the story was marvellous had he not then been told the author had never been to the setting. Telling him kind of spoiled the fictive dream for him.

I once wrote a short story in first person in which a woman talked to her widowed mother. My mum (a widow) read it after it was published. 'I'm not like that,' she said. 'I never did that, or said that.' She couldn't separate me the author from me the narrator. One's her daughter, the other isn't.

I think there's no problem with readers' imagination, as long as they're reading stuff written by people they don't know. They need to imagine the writer to accept what the writer has written.

catdownunder said...

Oh my goodness - I can sympathise with this.
I know that Jill Paton Walsh and Michelle Magorian were both heavily criticised for writing books set in war time - but what is the difference between doing that and writing something set in Roman Britain, or a Tibetan monastery? Imagination is a fiction writer's chief tool isn't it? It needs to be constantly exercised to remain fit.

jonathan pinnock said...

I'm slightly wary of ascribing any lack of imagination to a generational thing, though. We have a number of *very* young writers in our circle who have astounding imaginations and ambition to match. I also know people of my own age who find the idea of writing anything extremely peculiar.

JaneF said...

Oh yes, this strikes a chord! Why do people assume that everything you write about must be based on your own life? It's a worry when you're writing a crime novel...

I think lack of imagination is generally the problem. In the specific case of the reader who knows the writer, though, I agree with Womagwriter that there seems to be a compulsion to identify events and characters from the writer's life. This is one reason why I think friends and family don't make the best readers - they seem to find it hard to lose themselves in the story. They're constantly saying 'Ah! I know where you got this from!' - when what you want to know is whether the scene works, or a certain character's behaviour is believable, or whatever.

And I do worry about all those murders!

Girl Friday said...

Yes, sadly, some people have no imagination. Can you imagine how terrible that must be? They're to be pitied. And there are a lot of them out there - they are the people who only read magazines or non-fiction.

But as has been said, the writer's job is to make the reader believe they HAVE been to that place, in fact that they know it like the back of their hand. So when the writer turns round and admits 'I've never been there' about a real place (not fantasy/ historical obv), I can see how that spoils the fictive dream a bit.

And knowing the writer personally is a bit like knowing an actor in a play or film - it's far harder not to see the person on screen as your friend and fail to become immersed in their performance.

Girl Friday said...

PS I just have to say that BuffySquirrel is the best name ever :)

Nicola Morgan said...

Great comments but I do want to join in and agree vehemently with Jonathan. I'm really wary of any rosy-tinted view of the past and generalisation about how something is different now. I taught English and creative writing in a school in the days before internet, video games etc and, believe me, there was nothing better about the imaginations of the kids I taught. I have also done talks in hundreds of schools as a writer for teenagers and I see fabulous imagination. Don't worry about the younger generation's imagination. I do not think the imagination is destroyed so easily as some suggest. Some people have a good one and others less so, and that will be down to a mixture of genes and environment, as most other skills are.

No, going back to Vanessa's piece, I just think that there are a load of people out there who don't have much imagination, and never did have one, or who are afraid to use it, or who haven't read enough fiction as children and therefore don't know how to use it, and they don't understand how we can use our imagination. I remember when i was at school there were those who "had a good imagination" and those who didn't. Not that much changes but as we grow older we become worried that things have. It's we who change, and the things that worry and annoy us: the world spins on. So, when V asked what is going on, I took from that the question about what it is in someone's paucity of imagination that they cannot even imagine that we can have iamgaination. They just don't see the world as we do, poor them!

Thanks, all, for your comments. I agree with you. Marisa - as you say, it's this "write what you know" thing that's got out of hand.

Sally Zigmond said...

I hope I didn't give the impression that young people are at fault here. I don't believe that for one minute.

I'm afraid I don't understand why anyone would think less of a story because the writer hasn't 'experienced' what they're writing about. It doesn't make sense to me. Neither my mum nor any other member of my family believe what I write is based on my life or anyone in the family. I suppose it helps that I write historical fiction and that, as a family, we have always preferred the life of the imagination than reality!Pretend play and imaginary characters were always encouraged in out house and neither ridiculed nor patronised.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hellooo. I have just got back from the Moon, and am dropping in to say thank you to Nicola for allowing me to rant. Great discussion ensues -
I can't wait to read Catherine Hughes's book. Right up my (fictional) street, that is.

And no, I don't think all young people lack imaginations at all. Thats the trouble with rants - you lose coherence. Some of the most zippy brains I've come across are in school workshops. 'Challenging' kids being the best!

And of course, it is a matter of taste, as well. Many readers enjoy absolutely reality-based fiction - Tesco's, public lavs and all - and that's triffic. I just don't write it meself. Yet.

Watch this space.

Thanks Nicola.


Nicola Morgan said...

Sally - actually, I hadn't seen your comment because i was away and only seeing commentsd through email and yours was (along with others) in my spam box. (Sorry!)

No, I didn't think you gave the impression of thinking that young people are at fault, so don't worry.

I think it's very frustrating for all of us when we see imagination side-lined or somehow regarded as unimportant. But, actually, I don't see that happening now more than before. I think we're all sometimes guilty of confirmation bias - seeing things that support what we believe - so i think that if we believe it's all much worse now, we'll see evidence of that. I believe the opposite, and see evidence of the opposite, or at least things that confirm my view. One problem that IS greater now is that more and more people can have a loud voice, and it's therefore easier to think something is louder/more more widespread than formerly, because the voices sound louder. Sorry, am not making complete sense because I know someone is about to arrive at my door... Excuse typos, please!

Rebecca Brown said...

Very interesting post and comments! My own tuppence, with regard to 'then' & 'now' is that I've stopped my 3year old watching many of the pre-school tv shows because they seem designed by some evil genius to stifle creativity and imagination. Luckily my son has a phenomenal imagination so I'm not too worried about him but I do think it is a serious point (without wanting to generalise too much!) that children are not getting the same opportunities to be creative that previous generations had. I think in those children who are genuinely creative or imaginative, that talent will always shine through like children who are good at maths always will be with or without calculators; but just as those who weren't naturally good at maths were forced to think harder pre-calculators, perhaps children were forced to play harder pre-super-dooper toys? I probably didn't make sense, I hope you know what I mean!

Thanks again x

Catherine Hughes said...

Oh, Vanessa - bless you for that bit of encouragement! It is (or soon will be, as my first draft is almost finished) a novel but it may never be a book. I started writing in the hope that it might prove to be a new career (a replacement for the one I lost through illness) but these days I write just for me (and my daughter, whom I mention above)and without any real hope of publication.

Which is fine - the exercise of my imagination, and the creation of something tangible with it, is very therapeutic.

And I do think that's a side of it that gets lost, too: imagination is good for us. My daughter's imagination has been her companion - her games and role playing have helped her to develop in her own way and at her own pace. The world, for her, is limitless, because what isn't real she can invent. I'm probably not being very clear here - it's very difficult to explain in just a few words what she's like, but suffice it to say, her imagination is amazing.

Ameris Poquette said...

If you're going to stick to what you know, where you've been, what blokes "actually" do, and how physics "actually" work, why not stick to what "actually" happened, i.e. nonfiction? The purpose of fiction is to write the fantastical, imaginative, and sometimes the downright outrageous. As long as your story is well thought-out, well-researched, and well-woven, why does it matter? I enjoyed your article, Vanessa, and interesting read. :-)

Dan Holloway said...

A soap box. How exciting! this is certainly a topic worthy of soap-boxing (I have a very similar one on fiction, confession, and writing the truth). What Vanessa talks about works in other ways as well. The most familiar is the reader who assumes that because you write about serikal killers or whatever you must be one. And no matter how much they know you don't actually kill people there's still the sense that if you write about certain things there must be a part of you, somewhere, that IS just that. It makes me absolutely steaming furious - I feel like I'm being censured as a person because of the things I write, which means when I write I feel censored, and sometimes stories suffe because I wonder "can I write this, or will people jump on me as a person?"

Whirlochre said...

Most of what goes on in our heads is illusory.

Even for the dullest cynic.

Writers understand this, expose it.

Not our fault "they don't like it up 'em."

adele said...

Very interesting stuff! From Vanessa and commenters. Does anyone remember the stick poor old Steff Penney took for DARING to set her novel Tenderness of Wolves in Northern Canada when she'd been no nearer her fictional landscape than the British Library? All I can say is DOH and PAH!

Janet O'Kane said...

What a bizarre reaction – I’d be more impressed, not less, that a writer managed to be so convincing without having actually experienced what she was writing about.
Val McDermid warned on an Arvon course she was tutoring that while readers don’t expect a crime writer to have carried out the murders he/she writes about, they’re always certain any unusual sexual practices have been put to the test!

Lauri said...

I was on a writing retreat with a man in a place that is known to be sandy and hot with lots of sun. We had a discussion similar to this and I said I felt perfectly fine about writing about a place I'd never visited. He was disgusted, wrote me of as a fraud. His reading at the end of the retreat included an excerpt from his novel set in the very country where we were staying. He described it as hot and sandy.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Lauri - I knew it. You were in Morecambe on a sunny Wednesday. And so is his novel - is it about whelks?

Lauri said...

Vanessa- :)

Sue Guiney said...

People do seem to feel the need to have everything be autobiographical. People are forever asking me, have you been there? Did your husband do that? And to be honest sometimes I do write about things that actually happened to me -- but not always and that's the point. I'm not a journalist, I'm a fiction writer. Vanessa and I do part company on the timing of her research. But that's just a matter of what sets your imagination flying. I research first, but that's just to give me a bit of foundation beneath my feet. That sort of boundary-of-the-real gives me something to bump up against. And I do believe that there is a sort of death of the imagination going on now. Reality TV shows are one example. Another is all those Best Actor awards going not to actors/actresses who create new characters, but rather to those that come the closest to mimicking people who actually lived. Yes, it's annoying, but perhaps its even worse than that. It's sad - just think of all those people whose lives are straight-jacketed by "reality".

Nicola Slade said...

Good post - shades of: 'where do you get your ideas from?' I write crime and even though it's categorised as 'cosy', I've not murdered that many people!

Interestingly my 5 year old grandson - who has Aspergers - said recently that he wished he was like his older sister who 'has words inside her head' (or imagination, in other words). He said sadly that he doesn't, he just has words he's remembered. (He's probably right, he's shaping up to be a born engineer, like my husband! And his 7 year old sister spends all her time writing stories.)

The Wicked Lady said...

This post struck a chord with me. My daughter was in a book club from the age of 7 to 13. It eventually fell apart because of differences in taste, but in particular there was one girl who just could not handle fantasy. It truly upset and confused her having to read Phillip Pullman or Susan Cooper. Sometimes her comments were simply "I don't get it", but other times she made it clear she was uncomfortable reading about things that "couldn't really happen."

It made me very sad. What happened in that child's brain between the age of eight or nine(when she happily read Madeleine L'Engle and CS Lewis)and twelve, when she just couldn't cope with things outside her own reality?

I don't think we can blame modern TV and technology -- this was a kid who didn't play computer games or watch much TV at all. Maybe it's family environment, maybe some people are just wired that way.

Thirty years ago I had bookmark that read "Reality is for those who cannot handle science fiction," and plenty of peers who thought I was weird for reading fantasy ... or for reading at all.

There will always be elements of society in whom imagination is a shrunken and uncared-for thing. That's why we need writers.