Monday, 28 April 2014

A Lack of Imagination

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.

1 comment:

  1. I love your writing. I find that I feel the opposite. You said "I can get lost in a well described environment. " I can't stand when an author drones on and on about the environment. It slows me down. When I read, the book plays like a movie in my head. I typically can't see clearly defined features, but I can see bodies and clothing. When an author starts getting too flowery about the breeze and the trees, I feel like it puts a lurch in my book-movie in my head. I tend to skip over it. I read very quickly anyway and I appreciate a good story. (I love Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell because they make me read slowly).

    I do have some facial blindness and have difficulty remembering where I have seen people before. I can't tell if NT women are being genuine or not when they talk about their children going off to school. They moan and whine that their little baby will be gone from them for eight hours while at school. They cry and wail when their children go off to college. It baffles me. Is this not what we raised them for? To be strong, independent people? I enjoy when my children go off to school as much as I enjoy when they come home. I'm not sure if that is what you were talking about.

    Can't wait to see what you write next!