What Do You Imagine When You Read (and Write)?

What do you imagine when you read?

Recently, James Chartrand argued in a post on Men with Pens that

. . . when we read, we literally imagine all sorts of pictures in our mind, like fleeting split-second movie scenes. It’s one of the reasons stories work so well – a good fiction novel makes you feel like you’ve literally stepped into another world.

She gives an example:

You can nearly touch the warm, vivacious characters in their jewel-rich clothing of blues and reds. Hear the marketplace clangs and shouts from vendors as you walk between the dirty stalls in the cobblestoned square. The clop-clop of a horse warns of a creaky, haphazard wagon coming up just behind you and some stinking drunk stumbles into you with a muttered, “Move, willya?”

See what I mean?

All I did was write some words. On my screen, they’re black and white. But as I wrote, my mind swirled about, bringing imagery to my words so I could paint a picture with all its colours and sounds.

And as you read my words, your mind took them and painted a new picture in your mind – one you could nearly imagine as being real.

Me, I’m not so sure.

I think it’s a common misconception, a romantic myth, that when you read you’re “literally step[ping] into another world,” or that “you could nearly imagine [the world you’re reading about, or characters you’re reading about] as being real.”

This myth misleads young writers, who end up forcing themselves to compose exactly the same kind of falsely descriptive and ultimately hollow prose that Chartrand uses in her example of how to “paint a picture with all its colours and sounds.”

As I’ve touched on in my Province of Prose series, I think this is the result of a lack of understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of prose as a medium.  Prose is an artistic tool.  If used incorrectly, it won’t work, or at least not well.

Toolbox Dan Thompson via Compfight

Setting, physical description are, of course, important, and I do agree with Chartrand that “words let people see what doesn’t even exist,” but it’s a question of degree and emphasis, of technique.

I’m generalizing, of course, but in a world with video and photography, and given that a picture’s worth a thousand words, it seems to me that using prose for description with the intention of showing the reader another world is setting yourself up for failure.

Then again, maybe it’s just me.

About Dante Rasera

Originally from Upstate New York, I currently live in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I'm an MBA student at the Darden School of Business. This summer, I'm interning at Red Hat, the open source technology leader. Prior to business school, I studied creative writing at Hamilton College and received the Thomas E. Meehan Prize in Creative Writing.
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