A Familiar Letter

writer // poet // mindful

Category: Writing Life

Imagination Is Optional

We want to be overtaken by media. And look where we’ve gotten.

Movie theaters eight stories tall. World-destroying sound systems. 5k size images nearly practical.

We find breathtaking detail in video games. In Skyrim you just want to look at the scenery. You let the game anesthetize you into a dream state where reality ceases to matter. You could say we live our stories, melding into them. It’s become half vicarious, half not.

But we don’t live our stories. We immerse ourselves in them, sure, but not so far that life becomes the same as media.

Who knows what stories will look like in a hundred years? Maybe reality will become story. Entertainment turns into life, and life entertainment.

As I type this, I’m sitting by a bookshelf, contemplating the power in words. The work we do as fiction writers, the vital work of conjuring new realities, seems immutable. And to us it is a labor intensive task. We require immense imagination to create great objects of the mind.

Movies, television, video games — they turn off the imagination like water over a wicked witch. But they do immerse us. Imagination is optional.

Maybe books aren’t being usurped by movies and television. Maybe our collective lack of free time is usurping them, and this time sapped state causes a new kind of pain we can’t adequately describe. It’s a strained, new life that requires new types of culture to let us assimilate our experiences.

From this strained life comes a medicine: the new entertainment.

The Problem With Learning Fiction

Give your novel 4 acts.

3 acts.

5 acts.

The number of acts is irrelevant.

Oh, and Don’t Forget Joseph Campbell.


Here’s the problem with teaching fiction: craft blueprints how to write with reader psychology in mind, but every teacher spins craft differently.

We don’t even have a common lexicon. Just a jumble of jargon-y words that overlap and confuse.

Most successful fiction teachers have a devoted following not because their students have found Writing Salvation through their particular program.

(*watches for tomatoes*)

The sales pitch won them.

The perfect storycraft resource exists in theory. We just haven’t found it yet. We might never.

Tolkien = Fantasy but Fantasy doesn’t necessarily = Tolkien

I heard one author say the other day that she was “yet another Tolkien imitator.” She had just come out with a fantasy novel, apparently complete with castles, swords, (time travel ok thats different sort of) and a map that could have come from page 1 of The Hobbit.

This is known as Medievalist fantasy, and was popularized and brought into the mainstream by Tolkien. It would be naive to underestimate his influence on succeeding generations.

I read the Lord of the Rings in elementary school, and grew up with Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy. So I’m definitely not immune. I drew maps of fantasy worlds obsessively after reading Tolkien. I made up languages that were actually ciphers, but I didn’t know that. I wanted desperately to make a universe like his.

I certainly didn’t understand the unique circumstances surrounding Tolkien’s creative process. As a philologist, he studied languages (that’s what philologists do, I’m told). He was deeply invested in the state of English lit and English mythology, and was dissatisfied with it. So he set out to create his own. However, he made the languages first, and then the worlds and stories to fit around them. Not the other way around.

If I said the word FANTASY, what first comes to your mind? Swords & sorcery, castles, wizards, elves, dwarves, dungeons & dragons. Perhaps, perhaps not.

How about: The Arabian Nights. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Bible. The Iliad & Odyssey.

All of the above have heavy fantasy elements in them. Fantasy is as old as literature itself. I think it’s time we started thanking Tolkien for what he’s done, and then politely shelving him, in search of more distant shores for ideas.

Tell me what you think.

Writing Under Shadows & Weight

Shadows flit around us as we write, sometimes more times than others. I know I’ve got them. And with enough shadows, layer on layer, they weigh down the air, every keystroke, every breath.

Anxieties arrive at the tips of your fingers, and no matter what you say to yourself they remain there. Sizzling.

My way of coping with the fear tends to be focusing on the word. Being present there with them. Mindfulness.

What’s yours? You know you want to comment this post. Go on. Go on.