On Saturday I took the A train almost to the end, all the way to 190th street in Manhattan. Many of you, probably those not from New York or not that familiar with its streets probably didn’t know Manhattan goes up that far. You know that Yankee Stadium is at 161st, so isn’t 190th street in the Bronx? No.
Not on the west side, anyway. There’s a beautiful park there called Fort Tryon that overlooks the Hudson River and its rocky and forested New Jersey palisades. Also situated there is the magnificent Cloisters, whose walls were supposedly brought stone by stone from various medieval places throughout Europe. But I wasn’t there for the art. I wanted to simply get away from the noise and sit in the quiet woods for a while.
I searched the park and found a secluded spot on top of a rock that overlooked a steep hill. There I sat and brooded for a while, doing nothing much. I began to think about a recent statement I read in an old, obscure book about writing. The author said (paraphrased), “There’s no need to rehash things already done. You don’t have to describe a table. Everyone knows what a table looks like. You don’t have to describe a cup. Everyone’s seen one of them a thousand times.”
And these statements sat there in my subconscious for a few days until I was there, sitting on the rock, on the tip of Manhattan, with the sun beating down upon me that I screamed (metaphorically) a vehement, NO, THIS IS ABSOLUTELY NOT SO! The author couldn’t have been more wrong.
And that’s when these thoughts came to me:
The sign of a good writer is his ability to turn the ordinary and commonplace into realms of wonder. Case in point – William Gibson can turn an ordinary leather jacket into a masterpiece of art (he has done the same with sunglasses, tattoos, even discarded cups of ramen noodles.) We may all have seen a tree before, but any writer that resorts to a stock description – a prepackaged idea – lacks real imagination.
This is the problem with modern fantasy cinema. For example, Star Wars Episodes I-III. Unable to really invent alien worlds and make them his own, Lucas failed to capture the audience’s imagination. Ice planets were just lumps of ice. Jungles were just green canopies. Desert planets were just orange suns setting over lackluster CGI. There was no real imagination in those films. (Compare this to Empire’s Degobah and the Ice Planet Hoth, both, in my opinion, fully realized planets.)
To offer a counterpoint, I invite you to watch the new King Kong and see how Peter Jackson makes the lost island his own. Sure we’ve seen stampeding dinosaurs and man eating locusts, but Jackson was able to exceed our expectations because he and his team were gloriously inventive. He used his imagination liberally. He didn’t say, oh, they’ve all seen a jungle before. No need to really go into detail. Let their expectations do half the work for me. No, he played our expectations against us. The island became as much Jackson’s as it was Kong’s.
I think any writer will quickly enter hackdom if they persist in believing that you don’t have to describe an object just because it has been described by many before. The best writers who ever lived turned a sunrise into “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill” and men into “actors [who] persist in fancying [dreams] full of meaning and purpose as the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.”
Or you could just say, “the sun rose.”
Or you could just say, “the arrogant men.”
Or you could just say, “I lack imagination.Â Let someone else do the work for me.”