Steve's Essays

Writing as a Way of Knowing

Some of the most important things I know, I don't know until I've written them down.

The usual view of writing is that an involved process of thinking and planning must take place first. The writer thinks of something, then writes that something down. But many writers will tell you that, when the writing is going well, a transcendental event occurs between the thinking and the writing, and words, dialogue, and events here-to-fore unthought of appear on the page.

When I talk to new writers I emphasize preparation. I stress the thinking that must precede writing. I talk about the need for a conscious process of writing, and especially for conscious technique. I've always believed that this is how one achieves craft.

But there is a point at which thinking and preparation ends, and the actual act of writing begins. And that's the time, I believe, that the writer must become an instrument.

Every working writer has had the experience of characters taking on a life of their own, committing acts the writer had not imagined, dictating their own dialogue. Most writers have had the experience of a story coming full-blown into their heads, leaving them only to transcribe it as quickly as they can, before it escapes and travels on to wherever forgotten stories go. Some writers will tell you what a thrill it is, when they've left behind what they'd planned to write and entered this region of the story where they had no idea what was going to happen. But something is happening, something they'd never imagined before. Here the writer becomes just another interested reader, writing in order to discover.

As I've refined my writing process over the years I find I still do a great deal of preparation, but I've also tried to maximize the time I spend writing in the dark, having no idea what it is I'm going to write next. Not automatic writing, precisely. Sometimes when it first comes out I may not exactly understand what it means or why it's there. But understanding comes soon. Like a new and exotic food--sometimes it just takes a few minutes to digest properly.

Writing without a net. Writing without knowing.

Or maybe it's just another kind of knowing. Writing as a way of knowing.

This kind of knowing, it seems to me, is particularly important in the varieties of fantasy writing.

When I write realistically, when I write about the everyday world I can sense with the normal human sensory apparatus, I rely on observation. I rely on vision, smell, taste, hearing, and my memories of similar past, sensual experiences.

I use the same data in my fantasy writing, of course, but as a mediator, a translator, a compass to help me find my bearings in places and scenes which are not everyday at all. These data seem to be important to my readers as well. This sensory data, they might say, makes my work accessible.

But beyond these minimal touchstones, when I write fantasy I am writing about things I do not know. My normal senses cannot perceive what I am writing about.

And as a working writer who has talked to his potential readership, I know that this is where some readers are lost. Some people cannot read fantasy because they do not believe the things they cannot see with their normal eyes. They cannot know them. And there are other readers who believe in and read one kind of fantasy but, try as they may, they simply cannot read another kind. They may believe the fantasy of science fiction but they cannot believe the fantasy of horror, or vice versa. Some eyes cannot see the wonders of the future. Some eyes cannot see the darkness of the past, or of the past that exists in the present. Their particular blindness makes these realms of knowledge inaccessible to them.

But I firmly believe that these things we cannot see with our normal, everyday reality eyes are real, and all the more important to reveal because we cannot see them.

Is the mythic flood which wipes out entire cultures unreal simply because we have imagined it? Is the dragon a trivial dream? Is there no truth to be found in the stories of Osiris, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, King Arthur? Is there no significance in the werewolf, the vampire, the space colony, or interstellar travel?

Those of us lucky enough to become instruments for the secret worlds of fantasy find that our knowledge of the more subtle aspects of everyday living is increased. I believe that the importance of fantasy is that it can make these bodies of obscure knowledge available to us.

These are the strands of a spiritual knowledge set free by our writing instruments and our engaged reading. In that frustration of putting the words on paper we can feel how that spirit struggles to be set free.

Most people I suppose would locate the imagination in the things we think. But I believe the imagination really comes into its own during the active process of making a story, a painting, music, a sculpture. Until the imagination uses us as an instrument, it remains unused potential.

The creative act is a process of the now. It is a birthing, not a considering, not a slow picking over of old bones. This spirit of the imagination demands it.

And as more of this imagined knowledge is revealed in the text, more of what we see with our normal eyes is illuminated, is better understood. It seems to me that the aesthetics of the fantasy novel must take into account this back-and-forth movement, this imaginative feedback.

This may be one reason why the general run of science fiction novels may appear to be more aesthetically satisfying than the general run of horror novels. The basic aesthetic problems of science fiction novels have been largely solved: the knowledge obtained through the fantastic imaginings freely transforms the baseline "normal" reality of the text. It would be difficult to read the futuristic dreamings of a Bear, a Benford, a Clarke, without viewing in a completely new way the "normal" reality of our times, the base reality which flows beneath these flights of imagination.

But all too often in the horror novel these two realms of knowledge are compartmentalized: we have safe, normal everyday reality, and then we have the supernatural reality which intrudes. The object is to eradicate the supernatural reality so as not to contaminate our safer reality. This is why, it seems to me, the novel of horror has tended to be a much more conservative mode of writing, and much more difficult to sustain at extended lengths. The baseline reality of the horror novel is resistant to change. The knowledge obtained through the exercise of the imagination in these darker areas has not been fully utilized, and as a result we do not see the world in a new and more interesting way. The imaginative spirit is constrained, and kept a stranger.

The kind of imaginative solution proposed by a writer such as Clive Barker (and found earlier in writers from Robert Aickman to Kafka to Ramsey Campbell), in which we are not returned to the status quo at the end of the text, is the beginning of a solution to this. In the New Horror, the knowing we obtain through a free use of our imaginations should change forever how we view the "real" world.

Writing as a way of seeing. Writing as a way of uncovering hidden wells of knowledge.

copyright 1996 Steve Rasnic Tem

Originally appeared in Necrofile #20, Spring 1996

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