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The imaginative space

In my experience, the single question most often asked during question-and-answer periods in university auditoriums and classrooms is: “Do you write with a pen, a typewriter, or what?” I suspect the question is more important than it seems on the surface. It brings up magical considerations — the kinds of things compulsive gamblers are said to worry about: When one plays roulette, should one wear a hat or not, and if one should, should one cock it to the left or to the right? What colour is the luckiest? The question about writing equipment also implies questions about that ancient daemon Writer’s Block, about vision and revision, and, at its deepest level, asks whether or not there is really, for the young writer, any hope.

As any writer knows — both the experienced and in the inexperienced — there is something mysterious about the writer’s ability, on any given day, to write. When the juices are flowing, or the writer is “hot,” an invisible wall seems to fall away, and the writer moves easily and surely from one kind of reality into another. In his noninspired state, the writer feels all the world to be mechanical, made up of numbered separate parts: he does not see wholes but particulars, not spirit but matter; or to put it another way, in this state the writer keeps looking at the words he’s written on the page and seeing only words on a page, not the living dream they’re meant to trigger. In the writing state — the state of inspiration — the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things — sees them clearly — and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead. This is the process he must learn to set off at will and to guard against hostile mental forces.

John Gardner, On Becoming A Novelist, pp 119-120 (Gardner’s italics)

Writers are often asked: “How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?” But the essential question is: “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.” If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. “Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?”

Doris Lessing,  Nobel Lecture, 2007

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