|The Insular Cortex (Soure: wikipedia) where consciousness happens.|
I have been thinking about imagination, and about how some doors of imagination are closed to me. I’m a writer. Imagination is my thing. Metaphors, similes, creating new worlds and people to go in them. But other people’s imagination is another ball game (look, there’s a metaphor, and not even one I really like.) I like this item of food, so why don’t you like it? I believe in this political viewpoint, so why, even if I explain as clearly as I can, won’t you agree with me? Why won’t you believe what I know is the truth? Why doesn’t your mind think like mine? I can try to see it as I would see it if I were you, but not as you would see it without my involvement.
I am a literature graduate and I love well written fiction with a passion. But I find it very hard to imagine other writer’s worlds in my head. This is a hard thing for a writer to admit to. When I read a book I almost never see the faces of the characters. Even when I write I can’t see the faces of my characters. People are harder to visualise than surroundings, but with some writers surroundings are almost impossible too. Jane Austen, I have found, is almost impossible to visualise. When I read Emma many years ago I couldn’t visualise Emma’s world. She was forever walking up and down a street that was something like a film set with nothing behind the fronts of the houses. Austen describes minds, not places.
|'The Reader Wreathed with Flowers,' Camille Corot (Soure: Wikimedia)|
I can get lost in a well described environment. I remember reading The Long Winter once and looking up astonished to find that there was bright summer sunshine outside, not a blizzard. But still the characters’ appearances are a mystery, no matter how well described. Characters have hair and dresses and physical actions, but they don’t have faces. A good film adaptation is a blessing, because then I have something to fit in my mind to characters which would otherwise be an amorphous grouping of described features, something like a late Picasso painting. I might hear a description of a nose, of eye colour, of high cheekbones, but these things are a jumble in my mind.
Extend this, and I find it very hard to keep a number of characters in my head. All these names that don’t really have faces are jumbled around in my mind as I read each page. I find it hard to remember names and fit them to faces in the real world, so in a book where I have never been presented with an actual physical image of that face is nigh on impossible. Imagine the time when I was walking to the school with my husband. He waved and greeted someone. I asked him in a low voice who it was and he told me in a bemused voice that it was the man who lived across the road from us. I recognise him in the street outside his home, but I’ve never seen him on that path before and so he was a stranger. I couldn’t tell you his name if I tried. I’m having trouble recalling his wife’s name right now, someone I speak to often on the school run. It’s something Welsh and I know it isn’t Gwen. That’s it. The further people are away from me in lifestyle, tastes, habits, the harder I find it to remember their details. (Don’t get me started on remembering their contact details. I still can’t even remember my own home phone number.) So give me, say, sixteen people in a novel whose faces I cannot see and names I struggle to remember, and I’m lost.
|Members of the group "Anonymous" (Source: Wikipedia)|
Of course this lack of social imagination has an impact on my interactions with the real world. Other people seem to be part of a web of communication from which I am excluded. This has gone on all my life and I feel it as soon as I’m in an arena where I need to pick up those vital bits of information that people share with each other. ‘Oh, you know Betty?’ someone says. I shake my head. ‘You know, Sarah’s mother. Sarah’s in George’s class.’ I shake my head again. I have no idea. These people mill around and if they have particularly pleasant or unpleasant personalities their faces might start to stand out. (I have to admit, I remember the faces of those people I see as threats far better than those I see as friends.) If they talk to me a lot I might start to remember their name and I know the names of my children’s friends, but no further. There’s a network of gossip, discussion, information sharing, whatever you want to call it, but I always seem to be on the outside.
What does all this mean? I don’t take people away with me in my head. When I leave my children at school I am aware of their existence, of course. I love them, and if there’s something specific that has them upset I might worry about them, but essentially once I turn away from the door I could be childless. I don’t look ahead to the moment of picking them up. In that moment I could be childless for the rest of my life. I don’t have a good memory for what happened last week or a good concept of what might happen next week. Things happen a day at a time. So I don’t live with the thought of other people in my mind, not unless they’re making noise, poking me, in some way invading the bubble of my mind. That, perhaps, is a lack of social imagination. I have six or more novels under my belt, but I can’t see the faces of any of my characters. I have read hundreds of books, and the characters are a cannibal’s assortment of noses, eyes, legs, and hair. This is how my mind works.