Thursday, September 08, 2005

Mainstream Imagination

Mainstream imagination - isn't that a contradiction in terms? And yet, somehow, mainstream imagination has a hold of us.

Dragon hatching on a Plaque
By Robin Hutton

We tend to imagine what's been imagined before. We dream of faeries and elves and our nightmares consist of zombies and vampires. We even write fanfiction. All because this is what we know and are familiar with.

A few years back I was part of a writers' workshop (a group of writers that get together regularly to critique each other's work). One time, one of the members submitted to the group a short story about a song coming to life. This was not an easy concept for most of the workshop members to grasp, especially since they already had another idea from mainstream imagination, one of a shaman calling a spirit with song and dance, an idea they felt comfortable with.

When the author explained his story more clearly, they looked confused. "But how can a song come to life?" they asked. "How can someone summon a spirit?" I retorted in a needlessly snappish way. It just didn't make any sense. The same people, who accepted "the spirit realm" so readily, had problems accepting a song coming to life. The same people who read and wrote about magical forests, mages and faster-than-light space travel had a hard time with a living song.

Alien sunset
By Robin Hutton

I realized then how our imagination is set with fictional staples such as spirits, elves, vampires, dragons, wizards etc. making it easier for readers to receive and even expect these things, and making it easier for authors to write about them. The ready-made concepts are easy to explain or describe, sometimes, none is even necessary, doesn't everybody know what a dragon or an elf is? But these imagination staples are making it very hard for us to accept original ideas/imagination to the point that it's almost frowned upon.

A while back Lee Carlon wrote a post about how hard it is to be original, come up with something completely different that hasn't been done before. I agree. Fully. And it's frustrating. Heck, even when we think we're original, most times it turns out we aren't. However, as writers, we carry the banner of imagination. It is our responsibility to come up with original ideas, or at least to try.

I don't think I have come up with one original idea yet (I don’t even know if my friend's 'living song' was done before somewhere, you're welcome to enlighten me), but I always try. I rack my wee brain for hours searching within and I have nothing but admiration for those who can work their imagination differently and show us new things. I take my hat off to them. They are the Einsteins of literature.

Note: Before anyone jumps down my throat, originality can come in a variety of forms, not just new "monsters." Originality can be in the style, writing, plot, etc. It might be that I make a differentiation between imagination originality and writing originality. But the post is getting too long.

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Pat Kirby said...

Hee. Of course, I've spent lots of time ranting about the "originality police" in SF/F. My contention is that there are no new stories. Ultimately, everything we imagine moves through a filter of common experience. This is why much maligned stories of orphans who become princes resonate (trite, some scream)with most of us, the great unwashed, the mainstream reader.

I tend to think one can "original" themselves right out of readable and into dense, weird and impenetrable. Most people, I think, need to find something familiar in the situation or setting, even in SF/F; something relateable. Even if the plot or setting or character type is original, without a spark of familiarity, many readers will tune out.

OTOH, I've run into critiquers who are so limited in their reading and imagination that they can't handle deviations from standard archetypes. Also, many novice writers use archetypes as a form of lazy characterization. "Everyone knows what an elf/vampire is, right?" and they don't bother to actually build a character.

Frankly, when I get critique from someone who demonstrates a complete inability to suspend disbelief (when others have understood the story just fine), I send a polite "thank you for your critique" response and then chuck it.

A song that came to life sounds like a cool idea to me. Maybe you need a new critique group? ;) Sometimes a workshop/group just isn't a good fit.

Melly said...

Originality police - I love that.

Writers also use the staples because it's convenient. When I read something like - "he was a magnificent dragon" - I go nutso - what the bleep does that mean? Magnificent how? It's laziness.

I've become good friends with the writer I mentioned in my post, but we're no longer with that workshop.

Perfect Virgo said...

Nothing I write is original Melly, every scene is drawn from the film of life. I try to approach from an unusual angle but that's my only claim to originality. Oh, I just remembered - I do try to make each piece more miserable than the last... Thanks for enjoying my scale!

Jennifer said...

Hi! Thanks for visiting my blog :)

So my take on originality: It's touch! Everytime I write something or read something a fellow friend has written I rack my brain until I come across some piece of work that I can compare it to. And I always seem to find something.

But ideas already written about can be given a new twist, or a new P.O.V. and a very fascinating and compelling story can evolve from that.

I do agree: originality--pure complete - it's never been done before is a hard thing to come by.

PS Pat your points you bring up :)

Melly said...

Perfect Virgo, that's hilarious. Maybe you can bring new meaning to the concept of misery :)

Oh, and about the scale - anyone who hasn't seen it, go now, I promise you'll like it.

Melly said...

Jennifer, hi back :)

Oh, absoultely. Originality can come in many forms (re my note at the end).
"Touch," I have to ponder that now - very interesting. Thanks for this.

Cavan said...

When I was roughly halfway through Blurred Line, I posted the first few chapters in a critique forum online. One person who read the first chapter remarked that it was an unabashed Matrix ripoff, that I was a no-talent hack and that, should I meet an early death, he wouldn't mind.

I told him to read chapter two. He did, and said "Oh...umm...yeah, I see how it's moving away from the Matrix idea now."

What he got caught up on was the fact that I had a character contemplating causality. I hadn't even introduced computers or VR or anything else by that point.

Really, the fact that people have become so caught in being original (which, as several people have correctly commented, is damn near impossible) is just ridiculous.

Melly said...

Cavan, you're so right. If I were caught up in being original, I would never write another word. It doesn't mean I don't have to try, though, does it?

I received a similar critique to yours for one of my short stories. I wrote a spec story about a woman dealing with her feelings after being raped. I was told that it's been done a million times before, which is true, but I felt I put a different slant on it, especially with the speculative element I added. Being a person with low self-confidence that I am, I was devastated by this criticism nonetheless.

Many years ago I read a short flash fiction about a policeman going to a suicide scene. The suicide-note explained that the person decided to commit suicide because he couldn't come up with anything original, except for... committing suicide. The policeman then sighed and added the note to the thousand other similar note.

I guess this subject has been hashed before. Seems I can't even come up with one original blog post :)

Erin said...

Hmmm I hate to admit this, but I think I have to agree with pat kirby in that, because as a society we are generally so unimaginative and lazy, a truly original idea would most likely be more than the mainstream could digest. Overly original would become inaccessible - of course, that point was made in your poetry workshop experience, wasn't it?

Damn it I can't even come up with an original response!

I have run across this problem before, as I think all writers do/will. Try to describe something or create something outside of the "normal" and you're told it doesn't work. . . that the reader can't comprehend the vision in your mind, that you need to offer it up in a way that the reader can follow (and sometimes unfortunately, that means on a spoon.)

Write or do something too far "outside the box" and it's rejected, but to rely to heavily on the accepted norms and you'll be labeled as lazy and unimaginative. I suppose that there's a fine line between the realm of inaccessibility and that of cliches. Our job as writers I suppose is to walk that line - or deal with the consequences of crossing it.

Melly said...

Erin, good to see you :)

When I first started writing the post I had a sentence about the cultural dilution problem but then decided to leave it to another post. Perhaps everything is tied together and we can't really leave this out. Originality exists. It hasn't died. That wasn't my contention. But laziness exists too from both readers and writers and that might be part of the dilution problem. Mainstream media tends to serve everything watered down, without the need to think.

I do agree with all of you, and of course Pat always knows how to put things so well. I just don't want us to give up on originality. What would science do if we gave up on originality and ignored people like Einstein and Bohr? Where would literature be without such greats as Tolstoy or Henry James? Science continues it great strides forward, and so should literature, and in most cases it does. Really.

(Maybe I just haven't read a really good book in a while and hence my slight bitterness :)

Melly said...

Or as Seal said:

"In a world full of people only some want to fly -
Isn't that crazy"

(I can't fly, but I want to).

ME Strauss said...

How did I miss this "mainstream imagination" stuff. Thanks Melly, for this post and everyone for this discussion. It's fascinating.

Melly said...

I'm happy you liked it, Liz.