To be a writer, you have to have a vivid imagination.
You have to have a lot of other things too, not the least of which is a supportive significant other — if you can find one to put up with you at all. Also, an unending supply of coffee, a life outside of writing, a penchant for watching people and appreciating nuance, and some comprehension of the human psyche. Knowing how to string a sentence together doesn’t hurt, along with a basic fundamental grasp of grammar and spelling.
Hmm. Maybe an inherent avoidance of the redundant, like “basic fundamental.”
Anyway, first, imagination. And a vivid one at that.
But this imagination thing is a double edged sword.
I recently read something from a guy named Dan, who’s very talented but isn’t yet published. There was mention of something horrifying being done to a woman. The writing was quick, the mention brief, and the scene off camera, but the moment is still sitting with me. I’m horrified by the mere implication in that scene. I can feel the cut of the knife, the vulnerability and fear of the situation. The writing put the scene in my mind, but my imagination carried it that much farther.
A coworker once told me about something she’d heard about in a movie, something about a woman being raped with a hot curling iron. That summons so many horrific images that I have a hard time blocking it out of my mind once I remember her telling me about it. I can smell the burnt flesh, I can feel the pain.
There was a local news story a few years ago about a woman who was driving a pickup truck and she hit a baby stroller. She wasn’t going very fast, and the impact didn’t kill the child. But the woman didn’t stop, despite knowing she’d hit something, despite seeing people trying to flag her down and make her stop. She drove on for a couple miles until she rounded a turn and the stroller went flying.
That killed the child.
I cried about this story for weeks. I would wake up sobbing. I don’t know the family, I didn’t even see pictures of the little boy. But I could imagine the entire scene. I could feel the irritation and vindication of the woman driving, because she was angry that a pedestrian with a stroller had crossed against the light. I could feel the anguish of the parents. I could feel the guilt of the grandmother, who had made one poor decision. I could feel the horror of the police officer who found the mangled little boy.
A good friend and another very talented as-yet-unpublished writer (Bobbie Goettler, here’s your shoutout) once told me that when you have children, all kids become your children. That’s very true. And I recognize I feel that pain because I am a mother. Perhaps Dan’s scene is so evocative because I am a woman.
But my imagination always carries it much farther than it needs to go.
Dan Savage (okay, this guy is published) once talked about inheriting a worst-case-scenario outlook on life from his mother. He said that it prevented anything bad from truly happening, because the worst thing that could happen had already occurred in his mind. That rang a bell with me, because I’m the same way. Yesterday, my son almost got his hand caught in an elevator door. I jerked him out of the way in time, but as I was yanking the stroller back, I could see his fingers trapped, ripped from his knuckles because I was jerking him away at the same time as the elevator was pinning his tiny digits. If I call my mother and she doesn’t answer the phone, I’m convinced she’s had a stroke, or fell down the stairs and broke her hip. If my husband doesn’t email me from work, I always check The Washington Post to see if there were any accidents on the DC Beltway.
He says this makes me a freak.
I say this vivid imagination is what makes me a writer.