the circular runner

should writers fear pictures?

In humor, observations, writers & books, writing on May 31, 2012 at 9:23 am

Today I had coffee with a wonderful illustrator named Jonathan Silence.  It was a meeting of like-minds, and I’m not saying that because we’re both Libras–that was just gravy.  We might collaborate on a project this summer, which I am very excited about.  All the more excited after meeting Jonathan and realizing that we have similar views about what good stories are.  In short, we seemed to agree on two things: 1. that the type of stories we want to tell, what we would call the best types of stories, are stories for children–at least they are labeled as such, which as anyone knows, also means they are pretty good for adults, too.  (I’m going to talk about that idea in the next post, so don’t freak out, adult writers. There will be time for debate.)

The other idea we agreed on was less an idea than it was a shared concern about the current push to digitize everything, especially books.

though I am not eating the pickle sandwich in this picture, I hope you can imagine that I would be eating that pickle sandwich at a later time

Now, allow me to make an Evel Knievel leap of logic and say the following: for me, a digital culture is a visual one, by definition.  Think about it.  The web pushes images.  It is what It does best.  It’s what it’s for.  Everything from YouTube to the very graphic interface you are reading these words on is based on image.  Jonathan and I spoke about what that means for storytelling, and though he is a creator of images, he was concerned that this need to have pictures all the time is destroying our ability to imagine. I agree (to a certain point). Look at an episode of CSI or a doc on History Channel and you see the sad trend.  Two people talking is never shown for more than a few seconds.  Even if what’s being said is completely inane, you can rest assure that what’s being said will be shown in images.  So, for example, if you filmed me talking to my wife about eating a pickle sandwich, then you can bet your life that before I showed you that video, I would have my editor fade in an image of a pickle sandwich. You, as the viewer, could not imagine a pickle sandwich, so the picture of a pickle sandwich would be necessary.

God I hate that.

Now, don’t worry.  I trust that all of you can imagine a pickle sandwich.  But then again, just in case, here is one:

Though I could see Jonathan’s point, the writer in me is not so scared about the digital world and its super-need to rely on images. I will admit that somewhere along the line, I became a little snooty about what is and what is not good writing, by which I really am talking about good storytelling.  I am going to avoid trying to define terms, partly because I’m not equipped for that kind of thing and even more to the point, I have learned not to care so much about definitions.  They are helpful, but they can also limit you.  As in I once thought I could only be a professional writer if I published a proper novel. (I have three versions of 2/3 of a book to prove it.)  That idea was definitely tied to my understanding of what literature was, which in a few words can be described this way: character-driven sadness in which nothing happens except for someone dying towards the end.

My way out of that intellectual crapper has been to think of myself as a storyteller, which I know is a bit hack, but it’s no less true for being so.  Every medium has its strengths and weaknesses.  There are some stories that I think work best for the page.  But contrary to what I used to think, the written word is not the only way to be deep.  Jonathan Silence’s images are just as deep as a Ken Kesey novel.  It’s just that the stories being told are different kinds of stories. Along the same lines, I’ve been reading a blog called Little Commas, which I recommend highly.  I don’t know who hosts it, but every day, the blogger puts up drawings or graphic art or photography, and in so doing, makes the case that images are stories.  Even a company logo is a story. You just have to know how to look at it.

For the writers out there and the visual artists, too, I’m wondering what you think.  Can a digital culture make great stories? Or are we doomed to seeing pictures of pickle sandwiches?

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  1. Of course the visual can be a huge part of the story. Description, whether it’s done with images or imagery, is always an excellent way to evoke mood and understanding. I am a rather visual person and writer, and so I respond strongly to these things. Like that pickle sandwich. Yum. (Halfway through my last novel, I realized it should have been a screenplay, but I carried on anyway and ended up with a very visual novel. I think it worked out okay.)

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