by Katey Schultz, Guest Contributor
I first started teaching about the “creative imagination” and the “technical imagination” after reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook. In short, Vandermeer explains, the creative imagination is that spark of punch-drunk energy we feel when generating fresh pages and ideas for a draft. Writers often describe this experience as being “in the flow” or “losing track of time.” The technical imagination, on the other hand, brings a consciousness and intentionality to the page with a goal to revise, expand, cut, or generally improve a draft. Writers often describe this as “editing” or “fixing” (not the best word choice, in my opinion).
As an author and mentor to other writers, I find reasons to explore the two types of imagination again and again. If you are a writer who is in love with generating new work, and struggle to complete or revise to a satisfactory conclusion, you veer more toward creative imagination. Conversely, if you tend to overthink or become hyper-attentive to your drafts, fixing the same pages over and over again, you veer more toward technical imagination. A good number of us lean on both; we know when we’re in the flow and we know when we’re getting too nitpicky. But knowing is only half the battle. We must also understand how and when to switch between creative and technical imagination, and even, how mastery may be achieved when both imaginations can operate at the same time.
To that end, here are three scenarios to consider as you learn how to coach yourself toward using your creative imagination more, your technical imagination more, or some combination of both.
If you tend toward creative imagination: How does generative mode feel? If feeling in the flow helps you get to the end of a first draft, that’s useful. If it isn’t getting you where you need to go (for instance, it’s letting you play with words that are pretty and fun on the page, but isn’t helping you complete your chapter, find resolution at the level of scene/section/chapter, or open doors to deep development), then you may need to teach yourself to start using your technical imagination in small doses, even during your first draft.
Here’s one example of what that might look like: Say your newly generated draft keeps going and even though it’s fun, you suspect you’re describing things too long, telling a character’s entire life story, or are writing one flashback after another without any forward narrative action. For endless description: Experiment by making a character talk or having a mundane object in a scene (like a vase, a coffee cup) break. For an entire life story: Stop summarizing and write the three most pivotal scenes of that character’s life. For endless flashbacks: Ask yourself what your character most desires, and write a present narrative scene in which the character encounters an obstacle to that desire. These antidotes demonstrate how small doses of the technical imagination can gently steer your creative imagination.
If you tend toward technical imagination: Is your writer brain offering too much advice or laying on too many expectations? Put your pen down, still your fingers, and take stock. Print out your pages and reread them (sit on your hands if you have to). As you go along, look for what feels most interesting. Where does your heart feel lightest? What single word/scene/moment/idea do you genuinely want to explore further? Choose that, and give yourself permission to ignore everything else for a while.
Here’s an example of what that might look like: As you reread your draft, search for the sentence “hidden inside the one you’re making” (as Verlyn Klinkenborg says). Maybe your character looks out the window and notices the “anemic blue” sky. That’s a strange word—anemic. Why did you choose that word? If it’s right for this character’s worldview, what does that tell you about a scene you could draft? If it’s wrong for this character’s worldview, what word is the right word? Let your answer inspire whatever you write next, and as you start writing, keep the stakes really low. You can freewrite, you can write out of order, or you can throw things away. Just try something; crack open that word and see what it can teach you. Eventually, you’ll find yourself shifting gears as technical imagination quiets down a bit and your creative imagination finds its flow.
If you aren’t sure, or tend toward the creative and technical imagination in tandem: What does it feel like to generate new words, sentences, or even paragraphs…alongside applying craft techniques and the tools of the trade? This is the slow, weaving, unweaving, and interstitching of narrative. It is not linear or tidy, but it is organic. At a certain point, it will feel whole, or quiet; maybe it will feel cellular and uplifting. However this balance of creative and technical imaginations arises for you, pay attention.
Here’s why that feeling matters: Once you’ve paused, give yourself permission to process slowly, internally. I can’t stress that enough—this is the visible work of the writer learning how to become her own coach. As you pay attention to that feeling of balancing the creative and technical imagination, where does it land in your body? What conditions are present in your life and your physical surroundings, the majority of the times you experience this? Knowing this, what can you do to create the possibility of these conditions for yourself, as much as possible, in the future? Write down your answers. Reread what you have written with the same ferocity that you read coronavirus updates. That will sear it into your brain. That will make the arising of these conditions more and more likely, in the future. That will help you become your own best writing coach, for life.
Katey Schultz is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, IndieFab Book of the Year, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com.