Pictures in the mind
Probably every other book / magazine article / blog post on finding inspiration for writing fiction advises us to seek out pictures to help fire up our imaginations. If you’re one of the people for whom this advice sounds sensible but just doesn’t darn work, commiserations; I feel your pain.
Pictures don’t work for me. Like those factual articles we’re told could be the basis of an amazing tale, to me they’re too solid, too ‘there’, too real to be messed up into a story.
Clarification: pictures created by other peopledon’t work for me. The only way I can make pictures work is if I can come up with them myself, inside the privacy of my own head (where probably all of the most exciting things happen).
The story that became my first published book began with a picture inside my head. I saw, as clearly as if he was right in front of me, a boy, aged between 13 and 14. He was alone, standing next to a bed in a room with bare walls, surrounded by bulging cardboard boxes and carrier bags and an open suitcase spilling clothes onto the floor. I knew at that instant that this boy was starting a new life in a new town; that he had suffered something appalling; and that he was going to use this opportunity to become something completely different – to reinvent himself. This is how all my work starts and is sustained: with pictures inside my head.
These pictures let me see both the now and the then, the near and the far. Without a picture, I’m lost. A year ago I scrapped three chapters of a work in progress because the pictures had stopped forming and I literally couldn’t see where I was going. With every word I wrote, the fog around me grew thicker and my feet sank deeper and deeper into ground that was rapidly degenerating from bog to quicksand. I rescued myself by going back to the point of the last clear picture in my head and looking at it anew. Pictures clarified the present and the road ahead.
Unfortunately, I haven’t yet discovered a reliable way of generating them, so I can’t pass on much wisdom in this respect. Except: if you’re struggling to see anything, don’t beat yourself up. This is practical advice, not just about being kind to yourself. Like many aspects of writing, the pictures inside your head are not wholly, or even largely, under the control of your conscious mind. As with most creative work, the more you struggle and try to force things into being, the less likely you are to see. You’re most likely to see them out of the corner of your eye, or when you sneak up on them obliquely. Think ‘negative capability’. It’s a matter of ‘de-focusing’. Fix your eyes on a static object, and while still looking at it, let your mind think about your ideas and hopes for a story, or, if you’re lacking that, simply to wander free. That way you’re in with a chance.
If what I’ve said is helpful, I’m glad. If not, then I’m sorry but not surprised. Much about writing can be taught; other aspects of it – I like to think – are beyond the outer limits of our rational minds. This is where we truly create, and like so many important things, it’s just too big and too fundamental to be put into mere words.
About the Author
Graham Gardner’s debut novel, the YA psychological thriller ‘Inventing Elliot‘, has been translated into 12 languages and won the German Youth Literature Prize. He is currently working on a new story in the same genre, but won’t reveal any details for fear of jinxing it. In his day job, he is Librarian and Director of Independent Learning at a secondary school in London.