Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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The strenuous marriage (2 of 3): careful imagination

"Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just carefully imagining truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with language."
- John Irving

In the first of my three articles inspired by John Irving's words, I discussed the need for careful observation. But, as Irving says, it's not possible to see everything, not in the world right now, and not at all in the world of the past. You have to use your imagination.

Careful Imagination

Writers make things up. They are inventors of people who never lived, of actions that never occurred. They want to slip the leash on their imagination and set it bounding across unknown territories. Some writers do go into strange territories, writing what we call fantasy or magic realism, making events into metaphors. We, the writers of basic, ordinary stories, admire these masters for their strange fecundity, but we recognise that their quest is something we don't crave. What we want to do is to create convincing truths, is to imagine realities that could be, a world as real as the actual world.

In my previous article I spoke of the need to render details of personal behaviour and the physical world accurately. Well-observed details are the building material for stories. You write of a man falling to pieces after the woman he loves leaves him. How does he act? If you've had a family member or friend who's suffered this fate, you can recreate this reality, create an accurate portrait of a person's world cracking into shards. You can tell this story convincingly and movingly, sweeping your willing readers with you. That is careful observation.

Now let's suppose you've never seen someone fall apart like that. Now you're writing a story that needs that scene. How can you imagine what it's like?

You start by plumbing the depths of your own psyche for a similar event. We learn jealousy, loss, rage and love before we're five years old. But maybe you're lucky enough never to have felt terrible grief or despair. You read how other writers have portrayed it, but that's only a guide. All you can turn to is your imagination.

Or you have a character, a cowgirl in the Old West, say, fallen from her horse, her leg broken, who must get back to the ranch to warn her father that renegades are near-by, bent on running off the herd. You live in a city: you've never been on a horse, you've never been called upon to display stark physical courage. How are you going to create that harrowing trek, how are you going to glue your readers to their seats, keeping them with your protagonist across every agonised inch of prairie? You can't call upon a shared experience, but you can call upon imagination.

Imagination is the ability to conjure truths from thin air. Truths, because they are within the bounds of reality we all accept every day. Truths, because they are logically consistent with the circumstances you have established within your story. A man falling apart after a rejection can do many things: he can harden, he can drink, can shrink inside his life, can swear revenge, can become obsessed with his pain. A man falling apart shows something. What does your character show? How do you show him showing it?

You do it by sliding yourself into his skin. You get to know what he knows, to see what he sees, then you stretch yourself, using every particle of your understanding of human nature, into anticipating what he will do next. Let's say you've invented a passionate man, touchy, proud, a man who's never before lost anything important before. The woman he loves has left him, has thought him unworthy. What does this man do? Think. Feel. What is the obvious next step? He doesn't resign himself, no, that's not his style. He's the type that vows revenge, vows to hurt the way he's been hurt. You've carefully imagined his response: now all you have to do is show that response in action, and suddenly you're telling your story.

And that cowgirl, down in the grass with her horse run off. Yes, you must do the same thing: get into her skin. And more than that, you have to get into the landscape. You think of the sky darkening to the west. Just the sort of weather a renegade could hide his actions in. She hasn't much time. Think. Feel. There's a creek nearby: all ranches are built near water. She drags herself there, where there'll be cottonwood trees. What keeps her going, as she binds her leg to a stick to keep it straight, as she uses her pistol to shoot off a high branch to be used as a crutch? Think, feel. She's fueled by pride, fear, by a sense of honour that demands courage, that won't let her give up. In other circumstances it might have been too stiff a sense of honour, perhaps could even have been called arrogance, but here it feeds her strength. She's on the move, and you are with her, feeling the same pain, narrowing your world to the next ridge, the next step. You keep it feeling so real that when you finish writing it, you'll look up from your desk, exhausted.

Imagined truths first have to convince you, the writer. If you cry, if you glow with satisfaction, if you shudder with pain, so will your readers.

Careful imagination keeps each action real, keeps it authentic, keeps it in check by comparing it to what you know is true. You've never hobbled across the prairie on a crutch, a thunderstorm blackening the sky above you, but you know that you wouldn't start to sing and dance, you wouldn't start to fly, you wouldn't pretend to be a rabbit. Your actions would be sane, logical, in keeping with the sort of person you are and the motivation goading you. So your cowgirl keeps moving, maybe crying a little when she stumbles, but refusing to give in even when (and here you have to imagine a storm that's as real to your readers as anything they've been in) the wind sharpens and cools, when the air fills with that ozone stink that warns of lightning coming.

Imagination: the careful construction of what you haven't had the chance to see, know, or do, based on what you have. The imagination to think: what if I were an angry man, hurt, obsessed with revenge, what would I do? Strike at my once-beloved, yes, aim to ruin all she holds dear. If I had doubts, I'd stifle them, I'd ride myself harder, hold my weakness in contempt. Does this mental action ring true to you, the writer? Does it seem realistic that this man would do this? Careful imagining means knowing a person has many choices, but that he will choose one that is entirely in keeping with the person he is. It might be exciting to have your character murder the woman who rejected him, but that's not really what he'd do. His pride is twisted honour, just as revenge is twisted love. He wants to see her suffer – but mostly he wants to see her.

Imagination is combining your wealth of observation and your lifetime of watching people and things with your innate sense of how people work, what seems logical human behaviour, combining them towards the direction of narrative. After all, you aren't trying to imagine people and weather for mental exercise, you're trying to tell a story. You want to tell a story that convinces the reader that this could happen, could even have happened to them, had they been there. You want to conjure up a world that they don't want to leave. Every step towards the climax of your story has to have them agreeing, accepting, wanting more, so each step has to be imagined with immaculate care, with no out-of-character mis-steps, no bloopers, nothing that makes your readers pause or makes them frown in disbelief or puzzlement. You must imagine truths in your invented world that could just as easily be truths in the real world.

All this is real: a young woman in pain, struggling to get home; a prairie storm, frightening in its power; a man bent on revenge, using the storm as cover for his strike against all his beloved cherishes. Lightning stabs down as the man and his gang gallop towards the ranch. In its sudden light he sees her hobbling on a crutch to try to save her ranch from him, and she sees him, the man her pride sent away.

Use your imagination. What happens next?