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The Imagination, The Labor, and You

Posted on Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 9:28 AM

Part I -- The process of writing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

A recent lesson of mine for conferees at a writers' conference dealt with process. To save space, I've removed flourishes and examples. I've abridged, but here are the matters I covered.

I told them at the outset they've got guts, having made the choice to write as professionals and, thereby, having set themselves up for judgment, for analysis, for evaluation, for criticism, for editing, "all this on top of engaging in an activity that's damn hard."

I expressed the hope that my comments would "ease your discomforts, enhance your assurance, build on your skills, and lift your spirits," just what you, my readers, should as editors be doing from time to time for your writers and for yourselves.

I continued (for you, I'm dropping the quotation marks from what I said, leaving them for use when I quote the words of others).

The Process

You all know writing is process. It's not a matter of "Pouff! There's my masterpiece." It's process. First in the process: IMAGINATION applied, step by step by step. Then, it's LABOR applied, step by step by step. That's what can make writing so frustrating: all that effort. That's what also can make it so wonderfully satisfying.

Let me review the process with you, not that you don't know it already but so that you might re-freshen it in your mind and re-enlighten yourself. Here are the basics so you can be even more masterful masters than you are. [I then played a portion of Beethoven's Romance in F as bridge to what follows.]

We generally acknowledge Beethoven as one of music's supreme geniuses. Another musical genius of more recent vintage, Leonard Bernstein, greatly admired his predecessor. "I'm a nut on the subject," he insisted. But why, Bernstein asked himself, is Beethoven so admired? There are "better melodists, harmonists, rhythmisists, contrapuntalists, orchestrators in musical history. So, why all this hullaballoo about Ludwig van Beethoven?"

Argues Bernstein: "Many composers have been able to write heavenly tunes and respectable fugues. Some composers can orchestrate the C-Major scale so that it sounds like a masterpiece or fool with notes so that a harmonic novelty is achieved. But this is all mere dust -- nothing compared to the magic ingredient sought by them all: the inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be. Beethoven had this gift in a degree that leaves them all panting in the rear guard."

Well, for you, the writer, the notes are words. And from them, too, must come melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, orchestration, and always an effort to know what the next word should be. That is if you would make me laugh or weep, become elated or angered, be aroused or soothed, be transported out of my habitat, my skin, my mind.

It begins with you and, if all goes right, is transmitted to me. You establish the contact, and if all goes right, the words that leave you transmogrify into communication. Your struggle, your mental muscle turns into a magic substance that stimulates my brain and romances my heart. For that to happen, you must imagine and do labor. Permit me to expand on what I've labeled this talk: "The Imagination, the Labor, and You."


The imagination comes first in the process we call writing: the imagination to generate the idea, to conceptualize that idea, and to develop a plan for its usage in your manuscript.

The British playwright Christopher Fry once warned that "we should take care never to let rust through disuse that sixth sense, the imagination." He called it "the wide-open eye which leads us to see truth more vividly, to apprehend more broadly, to concern ourselves more deeply, to be all our life long sensitive and awake to the powers and responsibilities given to us as human beings."

I think of the line from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, when Estragon complains, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful." Well, the nothing and the nobody were shaped by Beckett's imagination into one of the most influential plays of the twentieth century, perplexing, yes; elliptical, yes; both despairing and absurd, yes; provocative, yes, but influential and important, the product of Samuel Beckett's fertile imagination.

Your imagination is potentially just as fertile. Call upon it. Urge it to be open to the power of suggestion. New ideas are rare. Imagination encourages creative re-use. That's valuable. Good ideas should be used more than once. How? Well, here are four words that symbolize an active, keenly-applied imagination on the prowl: appropriation, application, modification, and amplification.

Appropriation means using again what's been used before but not doing so in copycat fashion. Application means altering the idea so that it suits the particular needs of your reader in a particular time and place. Modification means making changes so that the idea acquires new boundaries and a new appearance, even a new identity. Amplification means expanding the idea through new factors or an altered perspective, thereby adding to what has been. You are urged to appropriate, apply or alter, modify, and amplify.

Ideas can come from self-assessment, from within you, from what you've been thinking about, from what you've been experiencing, what you've read, what you've heard, what you've seen in the reality of your daily life or in fantasy projected on the movie screen; from what you've eaten, what you've smelled -- yes, aromas evoke memories; from what you've received in the mail, what's on your television or in/on your iPad; from what the arts and sciences come up with; from practitioners and philosophers, from treasures and detritus; from memories, yours and those of others; from what's happening now, what happened in the distant past, and what predictions are for the future. Let your imagination roam.

Imagination not only welcomes ideas but guides us into conceptualizing them, into transforming the thought that is an ephemeral idea into a substance that is, for the writer, malleable, workable, usable. Imagination turns ideas into subjects and, through planning begins to turn subjects into stories. Notion becomes topic; topic becomes form; form becomes the skeleton that you will eventually transform into your manuscript. Planning means carefully plotting out just exactly what you wish to offer your reader in substance (the what), purpose (the why), and logical order (the how).

Labor -- To Be Continued

That's where labor takes over. The process continues in Part II, coming soon.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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