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.