Mikaella Clements: “For some authors, inspiration arrives in high definition. Others see nothing.”

From a Washington Post story by Mikaella Clements headlined “For some authors, inspiration arrives in high definition. Others see nothing at all.”:

For Gillian Flynn, a novel often arrives in a single mental image.

“I immediately had this picture of a man coming home to his house and the door flung wide open,” she says of what would become a pivotal scene in her game-changing “Gone Girl.”Flynn, laughing, describes it as the moment when antihero “Nick gets in trouble,” and the image was so entangled with Flynn’s real life that, in that first glimpse, Nick was walking through her own front door.

Carmen Maria Machado describes a similar experience with “Especially Heinous,” a short story from her collection “Her Body and Other Parties.” “I was in the shower shampooing my hair and I suddenly had this image of a woman with bells ringing in her eye sockets.” Machado says that her deeply visual imagination infiltrates every element of her life. “It’s like there’s something playing inside of my head all the time, when I’m listening to music, walking around and writing as well.”

The question of what writers “see” as they write is both fascinating and abstract. Research has found that some people, including authors, have no mind’s eye at all; Aldous Huxley wrote, “I am and, for as long as I can remember, I have always been a poor visualizer. Words, even the pregnant words of poets, do not evoke pictures in my mind.”

The question of what a mind’s eye sees prompted a heated debate on Twitter last year, when author Kalynn Bayron shared an imaginative exercise: What do you “see” when you picture an apple? “I see a red apple with a green stem sitting on a counter,” Bayron said. “There are water droplets on the waxy skin. I can rotate it in my mind. I see the people and places in my writing like this too.” Another author noted that she didn’t understand how anyone could write without a mind’s eye, while others picked holes in the theory. Best-selling author Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, for example, said she was on the other end of the apple scale, envisioning nothing at all.

But leaving aside the debate, the apple scale — from 1 (a high-def Red Delicious) to 5 (nothing whatsoever) — offers an interesting springboard to dive into the imaginative processes behind our favorite fictional creations. How do authors picture their work as they write? How do these images change during the writing period and after publication?

Claire Messud is a 1 on the apple scale, as are Flynn, Machado and “Seven Days in June author Tia Williams. Others, like Bridgerton series author Julia Quinn, Kristen Arnett (“With Teeth”) and Eliza Clark (“Boy Parts”) drew a distinction between the ease of picturing something simple like an apple and something more detailed, like a character’s face, which was hazier. Best-selling romance novelist Talia Hibbert says, “In the case of this apple, my recollection . . . appears to be a shiny stock photo complete with white background. Is my so-called Imagination just a bourgeois fiend exploiting the labor of the Memory Department?”

Moving beyond the apple image offers insight into the various ways authors visualize their fiction. Many of the authors I spoke to defined themselves as visual writers, but in different ways. Messud finds writing an immersive experience, explaining that “when I’m in a world it’s like a 3D five senses movie. I’m there.” Machado sees “images or a set of images, [which are] very painterly with a visual composure.” Arnett’s visualization is tied to action and movement: “How does a body look when it is running or walking or sitting or swimming or fighting? What does a body look like during sex? The same is true for place setting . . . how wind rushes through the branches of an oak, how palms bend.”

A common comparison was cinema. Before sitting down to write, Williams “imagines how it all plays out, like a scene from a movie . . . and then I write what I see.” Flynn points to her reverence for film instilled by her father, a film professor, and approaches each writing day not in terms of words or chapters but scenes. Sometimes a visual image will be so strong she’ll be tempted to make more room for it in her plot, as with the park in “Sharp Objects.” “I was seeing as I wrote this water tower with curlicues, spray paint, a baseball diamond, and I started wanting to spend more time there.”

But not every writer is guided by a visual imagination. “I rarely visualize what I’m writing because visualization takes effort and can be distracting,” Hibbert explains. “When I write — whether that’s getting words on the page or dreaming up the story — I hear the narrative and the dialogue in my head. Basically, my internal monologue dictates, and my body types.” Similarly, Clark notes that while she might spend more time visualizing fiction in the planning stage, “the actual writing is less visual and more ‘wordy.’”

Character construction can also run the gamut. Williams can picture her characters perfectly, while Messud has to try: “I always have a physical sense of them, their aura, and specific features; but occasionally I need to concentrate to see the whole of them at once, in the way that you have to concentrate to see in your mind’s eye a relative or close friend, because they’re known to you more intimately than by sight and you cease fully to see them from outside.”

Arnett finds her characters “don’t become fully realized to me until a final draft, which means that sometimes their features morph. I would say that I always have a general idea of how a character looks, almost as if I am spying on them from very far away. As I get closer to finishing a draft, it’s as if the character is walking closer.”

Others have more offbeat processes. Hibbert, who never pictures the faces of her characters, draws her knowledge of their appearance from the way other characters describe them, so her reader-beloved Chloe Brown “is just a pair of blue glasses and a great set of eyebrows floating above a cardigan.” Machado names her characters in the first draft after somebody she knows, using a friend’s face as a familiar visual prop in the alien world of fiction. Flynn actively avoids picturing her characters. “If I’m starting to see a face I try to get rid of that face as quickly as possible, because usually it’s attached to someone I know or an actor and I don’t want anyone else invading my character’s space.”

But a film adaptation tends to change that. “I never had clear images of my characters before ‘Bridgerton’ premiered on Netflix,” Quinn says. “Now I see the actors.”

“That’s the fascinating thing,” Flynn agrees, picturing her characters post-adaptation. “Now the only thing I can think of is those actors. To me, that’s part of how you judge a movie’s success. If the very own author can’t picture anyone but those actors, they’ve done a hell of a job!”

Mikaella Clements is the co-author of “The View Was Exhausting.” Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian and the LA Review of Books, among other publications.

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