A few days ago while I was on a walk around the neighborhood with Maddie, we stopped in to talk with one of our neighbors. Maddie is always happy to do this because treats are frequently offered.
We got past the usual pleasantries and then he asked me what I had been doing that day. I paused. I thought. I could have said any number of things but I told him that I’d spent the day writing. He asked if I was writing letters. I paused. I thought. Then I said that I was working on another book. I smiled and fastened my gaze on my feet.
Some of my neighbors know that I have published a novel. One of them has even read it. But in general, I’m reluctant to talk about it with the people I know. I find it to be a bit embarrassing on a number of different levels.
He hadn’t missed my use of the word “another.” So I gave him the short version. Then he had to get his wife involved because she loves to read. She has cancer and can’t get around much and reading helps her to shift her concerns elsewhere for a while.
She said something to me that triggered a revelation. She told me it amazed her how a person could write something so well that you can actually see it. Without thinking I said to her that it’s really the reader that does that. I told her it was her imagination that let her “see” what the author had written and that without her imagination, it was just words on a page. I had no idea that is what I thought until the moment I said that.
I’ve been thinking about that ever since then.
When you watch something on the big screen, or the little one, it’s all laid out for you. You see the characters and the setting. The actors arrange their bodies and faces to match the words they are saying and it all leaves little to the imagination. Watching something like that play out is very passive.
But when you read a book, even if the scene is described in minute detail, there is still a lot that is left to you to fill in with your imagination. Reading is very active.
I can tell you that the room is dark and the window is open. I can write that there is little wind to disturb the heavy draperies. I can say that the sound of an unseen owl sitting in a tree outside of the window comes quietly into the room and seems to add a sense of foreboding to what is about to happen. But the exact appearance of the window and draperies is left to your imagination. The type of owl and the sound of its hoot are only something you can know. And if a chill runs down your spine, you did that. Not me.
She told me that she didn’t think she had a good imagination. I told her she was wrong. Anyone who reads and, more importantly, who enjoys reading has a good imagination. I’m not sure she was convinced. But it didn’t matter. I knew I was right.
To be sure, an author than can create a great scene and turn a phrase well is an absolute delight. You might select that author’s work for just that reason. But there are authors who offer up the barest bones of a description but also know how to move a story along so well that you read them for that reason, filling in the missing details without even giving it a second thought. From my own experience, I’ll say that Dean Koontz is a good example of the former and Lee Child is a good example of the latter.
As a writer, I worry from time to time that I have not sufficiently described a certain scene. I worry that the reader won’t get it. But perhaps that is not as critical as I once thought it might be. Maybe all a writer ever does is set the stage. We provide the matrix upon which the reader’s imagination adds the embellishments that bring it alive and therefore makes the experience more personal and relevant.
It’s a symbiosis of sorts. Readers need writers. Writers need readers. But writers also need to have faith in the reader. It’s truly the reader who makes a writer’s words come alive.