Words as Magic

At Readercon, I went to a panel called “Words as Magic.” Is was about choosing the right words when writing, and how one word can have many nuances. And about how Greer Gilman writes with the OED open on her desk. At least, I think that’s what it was about, because to be honest, John Crowley said something that shocked me so much I spent the rest of the panel mulling over it.

I wish I had taken better notes so as to convey this better, but I was too distracted by my shock. He said something like this: “When I teach creative writing, I can always tell that my students write by watching movies in their heads, and writing down what happens. I tell them they have to stop that before they can be good writers.”

This was deeply alarming to me. I am a very visual person. When I read, I watch the story as a movie in my head. It’s more nuanced than a movie, sure, but that’s the medium to which I can most readily liken my reading experience. If I don’t read this way, I can’t focus on what I’m reading. I even need non-fiction to create moving pictures for me, or it will zip right through my brain and back out into the ether, leaving nothing behind. I guess it’s just the way my particular brain works, though I’m willing to be I’m not the only one who reads that way.

And then there’s writing. Writing for me is… less like watching a movie, and more like watching a slideshow. A slideshow with really good dialogue provided and the occasional sensation. Also, I make the faces my characters are making. So I really don’t write by transcribing a movie that I’m watching in my head, but I do write by describing the slideshow and capturing the dialogue and feeling the sensations and faces. Which seems like it amounts to pretty much the same thing. Which means that John Crowley thinks I need to write differently if I’m ever going to be a good writer. But… I’m not sure I buy it.

My relationship with Mr. Crowley’s writing is complicated, though I think he writes beautifully and with wisdom and incredible imagination. His book Engine Summer is deeply important to me, partly because it was given to me by an important person in my life at a time when it was exactly what I needed, but more so because it is a truly magical book. It’s a story about telling stories, and he manages to look at the world from the point of view of someone from the future, someone who sees the objects we use everyday completely differently than we do. I aspire to such a feat of imagination and writerly skill. Which is why I want to want to take his advice.

But knowing that Mr. Crowley does not write in the visual way that I read and write, but rather writes by crafting words into the forms he builds in a more… cerebral way (I’m not sure how to describe this, as I can’t conceive of it myself – everything is images to me), explains to me why I find reading his work challenging at times. When I read his work, it’s like watching a movie through a distorted pane of glass. The images are there, and vivid, but they don’t flow in and out of each other the way that a lot of writing does.

All of this leaves me wondering: is he right? Do I need to stop writing in the way that is natural to me in order to be a good writer? My instinct, of course, is to say “hell, no!” Everyone has their own style and approach, and I’m not certain I could stop writing this way even if I wanted to. But at the same time… what if this is truly brilliant advice, and I’m ignoring it because it isn’t what I want to hear? I’d love to know what you think.

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10 thoughts on “Words as Magic

  1. First of all, John Crowley has to teach thousands of students, and often the only way to teach (I’ve heard) is to lay down a strict set of rules, and say ABIDE! But come on. Come on! As IF there is only one way to write! AS IF! I wonder what Louise Erdrich would say to her students? Margaret Atwood? ROBIN MCKINLEY? McKillip, who writes like she’s dreaming? Sharon Shinn, who writes to make us daydream (even if it makes us shame-faced a week later). BUJOLD? DOROTHY DUNNETT? Or superstar Rowling, who is perhaps not the BEST writer, but what she does WORKS, and you can’t say she isn’t visual.
    I dunno — I think it’s dangerous to take advice that seems so counter to all your instinct. It seems to me that would more likely stymie you than help you. Maybe you could try for an exercise?
    Ew. Just. Ew.
    Anyway — smooches! Maybe I’LL never be a great writer myself, but I’ll write the way I know best and keep getting better. And one day it may be ME telling students, “Whatever you do, don’t stop writing the pictures in your head.”

    • Not that I have any students. Or am planning to teach.
      And I DO think you should TRY it his way, for an exercise.
      One of the exercises Gene tells his students (I’ve never actually taken a class from him, just corresponded hugely and listened at our brunches and stuff) is to take a work by a favorite author (you could try with Crowley, for example), read over a page of it about five times, read it out loud, type it out, and then launch a story from there, using the FLAVOR of that author, all its tricks and turns, and see where it takes you. Mind, it’s an exercise, and most of us do it without thinking anyway.

    • Yeah, I realize you do have to give students something concrete to go by… but he seemed like he really, really meant it. But I agree that there are many ways to write. Which is why I think I felt a bit rebellious about his comment…
      But I do really like the idea of doing a John Crowley exercise – I’ve tried writing in different styles, but never jumping off from an actual page of text! Sounds fun! Thanks for the tip! 🙂

  2. Hrm. I was at that panel too, and when he said the thing, I nodded.
    Here’s how I read what he said, and here’s how I’d mean it if I said it:
    There’s…a strong difference between being a visual writer, working with your primary focus on the visual input and visualizing the action you’re rendering, and transcribing the movie. The first lets the writer (and reader) into the insides of the story — making the faces they make, feeling the rain on their shoulder, etc. — and the second traps the writer and reader on the outside of the story, because the story’s in the movie screen and we’re out here.
    When it’s the second, the effect on the reader is sort of like not watching the movie, but listening to your friend who watched the movie go “Okay, so we’re in Gotham City and there’s this bank robbery, and the Joker jumps out of the truck and kills the last robber.” It’s that precis description of the action. Which isn’t immersive and doesn’t get my heart racing and is just kinda no fun; it’s purely informational, not exciting. When it’s the first, when it’s a visual writer and not a movie-transcript, the writer isn’t your friend; the writer’s the screen. And you can watch the movie on them, and see how hard every blow hits, and be engaged.
    And I think I mixed that metaphor on high.
    Um. Does that make any sense? *g*

    • That does make sense. I hadn’t thought about it that way… and of course, a story written like you were describing a movie to a friend would be pretty tedious. Anyway, I like the metaphor!

  3. Interesting post, and I suspect it was an interesting panel. My answer is that how you write is less important than the final form of the story. Some people write one sentence a week on 3×5 cards, and others… don’t. I do, however, see his advice as being reasonable from the angle that good writing and good movies aren’t the same thing, and that we’re all chock-full of visual culture these days: movies, television, video games, etc.

    • Yeah, sometimes I do wonder if I would write differently if I hadn’t grown up with movies rattling around in my brain. Not that I would want to not have watched movies… but surely all the visual culture has changed the way we all write.

  4. Hey there, been reading you for a bit, I think you’re interesting and thought I’d say hi.
    How’s that for almost a run on sentence (while not quite getting there?)

  5. Writing
    1st rule: never change what is working well for you, no matter how important may be the giver of advice to the contrary! Do people love your stories/poems? Are they selling? Auntie Jo would say “Case closed, my darling.”
    Your Mum

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