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?!”What is going on? I write fiction. Fiction tends to be made thanks to the imagination. Usually.
‘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.’
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?