Article: Imagination, the cliché shelf, and the inner librarian

Imagination, the cliché shelf, and the inner librarian

“We’re our father’s prejudices and our swordmaster’s dead men; our mother’s palate and our nurse’s habit of speech. We’re the books unwritten by our tutor, and our groom’s convictions and the courage of our first horse.”

This is a Dorothy Dunnett quote (from The Game of Kings, which I heartily recommend): it’s nominally about how the people who raise you influence what you later believe, but I’ve always thought it applies to other, more writerly things, too. See, the thing is… imagination doesn’t exist in a vaccuum.

I kind of feel like I’m barging through open doors with a battering ram–and I know everyone’s experiences are different–but I always think of my subconscious for stories as this huge, badly curated library which gathers all the books I’ve ever read, all the movies I’ve ever seen, all the words I’ve ever heard… And some books, some movies, some words are closer to the entrance, because they’re more recent, because I loved them more, or for whatever other reason. I go into this huge library with  a question (a half-formed idea for a novel or a short story, a plot point that I can’t solve, a character that needs a better personality): to continue the analogy, it’s like I’m looking for something in a book, but I’m really vague on what book, just that I’m adamant the book is in the library somewhere, and I’m not going out of said library until I have something to hand (aka “librarian’s nightmare” :p). And, if I brainstorm long enough or let everything rest long enough, presto! My subsconcious will provide me with an answer: my inner librarian will come back smiling and hand me a book, which I’ll use as an answer to my problems (until the next time, obviously!).

But the trouble with huge libraries and a crap filing system is that it’s very, very easy for the inner librarian to just hit the shelves closest to the entrance when you need a book–and the shelf that’s right by the entrance, the “recently returned books” shelf? It’s generally the one that’s full of clichés. It’s the tropes that I’ve seen over and over in media, the easy answers to complex questions; the archetypes of behaviour that feel so weighty because they’ve been reinforced by years of societal pressure (the encyclopedias in several volumes that insist that women really like pink and shopping and don’t have a brain, that real men don’t cry, etc.). Which means that I’m very, very wary of the cliché shelf: I have a habit of second-guessing the first things I come up with, because in 99.9% of cases they’re just lazy thinking. You have to go deeper into the library.

(by which I don’t mean you shouldn’t reach for tropes. Sometimes a trope really is what the story needs; sometimes you don’t want complex and you don’t want to question everything, and that’s quite OK! Not every story needs to smash all the things. But I feel like this should be a deliberate choice, and not simply a default because said trope happened to be the thing nearest to hand)

One of the reasons why I do so much research *before* I start writing a book? It’s because of this. Research adds books to the library (and adds them, very often, to shelves close to the entrance). Research means that I have things close to hand that are useful and relevant: it means that, when I need a random plot point in, say, a Confucian society, I won’t have my characters throw a large sports event (Confucians tend to think sports is best avoided); or, when I have a 19th-Century dystopic French society with a highly hierarchical class system (well, hello, House of Shattered Wings!), I won’t have a servant barge into the office of the head of the House and talk to them like an equal. And I need the foundations to be there before I start plotting; or my plot won’t make sense within the universe that I’m creating–I need my shelves to be filled with the right books to get the right answers when I’m brainstorming.

One of the funny things with the imagination-as-library thing, though, is that some things still end up being close to hand no matter what you do–it’s like my subconscious keeps making them bubble up (I have a thing for family as restriction vs family as loving environment, and also for evil trees in fantasy stories, apparently. Go figure. Clearly there’s a childhood thing there that I’m not aware of).

Again, it’s not necessarily a problem: some unity of themes is expected as an author, but I’m aware some of those continuously bubbling-up things could be problematic; and it’s useful from time to time to take a long hard look at them. It’s very easy to feel like I’m reaching deep within the library, but still getting the cliché shelf or its little friend, the “inverted cliché” one: the one where all women behave like men (which looks OK on the surface, but really means that you still attribute a higher value to maleness); where POCs rule the world and set up a racial segregation system that looks exactly like the ones in our world, except in reverse (again, looks OK on the surface; can be done very well, but can also end up playing into dominant folks’ fears that all POCs are secretly out to get there and/or promote the idea that “oh, it’s not so bad because everyone would be as bad as us, on the exact same terms, if given power”); where violence is committed by women/POCs/marginalised folks but still remains the driver of the plot (again, some stories are all about violence and that’s OK! It’s just that there is more than one way to skin a cat subvert a cliché).

So, anyway, that’s me and my subsconcious aka the inner librarian; and why it’s important to never ever trust the first, easy answer to a question :p What about you? Do you have an inner librarian? How do you feel your subconscious works? How do you use research in your books?

[1]We can also argue about what “strong” means and the different kinds of “strong”, but this isn’t the article for it!


Sorry. Comments are closed on this entry.