Pas de Deux: The reader and the written word

by Pari

Page 1:    She steps into the room. Orange-gold light from dozens of candles paint a mosaic on her slender face. She flicks a strand of hair from her forehead. He notices the impatient motion. In the moment their eyes meet they forget every other love, every other joy, they've ever experienced.

Page 70:   He slaps her. The sound of his hand against her flesh silences the birds and makes the squirrels run for cover. She laughs at the sting of his touch. The baby isn't his anyway.

Page 153:  The bump on the back of her head oozes blood and a strange clear liquid that shines in the illuminated circle of a lonely street lamp. She wanders the rough pavement on an old sidewalk in an unfamiliar town. The policeman spots her crouched in a doorway, shivering in only a long tee-shirt and one woolen sock.

Page 226:  "No! You can't have him!" She hurls herself at the elderly woman.

Page 332:  Still wearing their soccer uniforms, two teens take a detour through a shorn wheat field. There's an odd lump in the flat landscape. By the time they're close enough to figure it out, both will be scarred by the vision of that one hand emerging from the coffee brown soil — the gray fingers curled around a mangled photograph.

Amid the wonderful posts of the last few weeks, the exhortations to buy books for holiday gifts, I've felt that something wasn't quite being addressed.

It's taken me time to figure it out and I hope I can express it well here . . .

Books are essential because of the dance between author and reader, between reader and the written word. It's one of the most crucial pas de deux in the human repertoire.

For years, I've heard how books (and other forms of writing) make people work, that they're effortful. We're urged to simplify, to dumb down our prose, to apologize for the old technology of print or text-heavy passages without graphics.

We writers, booksellers, publishers, reviewers, scholars, have missed a fundamental truth about this medium — especially as it compares to others.

Even though the cultures of industralized societies are trending toward the flashy whizbang of electronic media, I think that it will be books that save and nurture human imagination.

The problem with all the new media: from movies to television, from video games to virtual worlds, is that we let other people imagine for us. While some of these works are interactive, astounding, mind-blowing, they're still passive in that we're seeing or playing by others' rules. 

It's like taking our food intravenously rather than tasting it.

But the written word is different because it forces us to own it, to make it ours, to make it personal. In the quiet of our own minds, we dance and create because of what we read.

I suspect that's why Brennan #2 was disappointed with the movie TWILIGHT;  she'd built her own images already and they didn't match those of the director.

That's why I wrote the sketchy story at the beginning of this post. I wanted to prove how much we all fill in the blanks, how active we become with the written word. And yet, no one reading those paragraphs will see the two women and man in the same way. Each reader will make dozens of different assumptions about them, about the whys and hows of their lives. Without realizing it, every one who takes the time to ponder the story will have created scenes and explanations far beyond those few hundred words.

So, yeah, books make us work. And guess what? Without exercise, our minds and imaginations atrophy.

I believe that books are the primary prophylactics against creative pudginess. They prevent us — all of us who read, anyway – from becoming lock-step thinkers, monochromatic mentalists. 

To me, that's the reason to buy books, to make them presents. By doing so, we're giving the gift of imagination.

Imagination is the heartbeat of change.
Without it, no innovation is possible.

Books save the world.

Am I making any sense here? Do we not talk about books and imagination because the link is so obvious?
2. What did you picture in that story?

28 thoughts on “Pas de Deux: The reader and the written word

  1. Stephen D. Rogers

    I recently had a chance to prove this to my young daughter. We were reading a three-pack of Bunnicula books where each of the books were illustrated by a different artist. This allowed us to discuss how the illustrators differed in how they imagined the characters. Not only that, but how three different people could draw Harold and still not match our own version of the character.

  2. pari

    Stephen,I like that. What an opportunity to show how differently we see things and how active our minds are without us even knowing.

    You know, we talk about how important books are for ideas and for “escape,” but I wish we could package the idea that they also make you — every reader — a more creative, imaginative person.

    We all know it, but it’s not a “sexy” enough concept to distill and market. Much too esoteric.

  3. Tammy Cravit

    I think you’ve hit an important nail on the head, Pari, and it isn’t just about books or movies. I’ve long decried the surge of “branded” toys — Hannah Montana dolls, Bob the Builder toy trucks, etc. — because they constrain the kids who play with them to the storylines of the branded products they (in effect) help to sell.

    I’ve watched my daughter and her friends play dolls, and there’s not much imagination at work there. They take the Hannah Montana Barbies and act out scenes from Hannah Montana. They get out the High School Musical dolls and act out scenes from the movie. Rarely do I see them creating their own stories, their own action, but they can regurgitate movie and TV dialog with absolute precision.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this is a problem.

  4. Fiona

    Pari, I think that’s EXACTLY why reading the book-then seeing the movie doesn’t work for me. I need to see the movie first or the characters and setting don’t look “right.”

    One thing that bothers me in a book is if the author takes a while to describe the main characters. I already “see” the character and the author’s late description is “wrong” for me.

    Another thing I need in a book is a sense of PLACE. If the setting is not enhanced with some sensory description, I don’t get drawn into the setting and it feels unreal.

    I just read a SF book this weekend that was almost devoid sensory description other than the main character’s physical pain from injuries, what he heard from guns/ explosions and how much the gin he was drinking burned. ARGGG. He had to notice something else about his surroundings.

  5. JT Ellison

    Oh, how funny. Randy and I had this exact conversation last night. It seems a massive lack of imagination is sweeping through our culture, which is so sad. I recently loaned a book to a friend and heard the old excuse “I won’t get to this book for a while, I don’t have much time to read.” She then spent fifteen minutes regaling me with stories of all the reality television shows she watches. Broke my heart. They say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. You can’t create an imagination when the person is so closed down and doesn’t want it.

    On a happier note, I recently met a woman who was 30 and had just started reading. She was absolutely intoxicated with the idea that words could create worlds in her mind. So there’s always hope : )

  6. pari

    Thank you, Dana. I was going to write the post and include the whole commoditization of corn and its likeness with imagination, but couldn’t sustain the analogy without becoming a preachy boor.

    Ya know?

  7. pari

    Tammy,Don’t get me started on the whole “branding” phenomenon as it applies to kids’ products.

    But then, I’m a person who’s still offended by Disney’s version of Peter Pan. If you’ve read the original, you know what I mean. The same is true of Mary Poppins.

    Part of imagination is also recognizing and learning how to deal with the dark side of life. None of the shows you mention — or the Disneyfied movies I’ve mentioned — allow kids to nurse their own bruises.

  8. Stephen D. Rogers


    I think I understand now why so many kids are nuts about Stars Wars, Indiana Jones, and the superheros (even kids who have never watched the movies). When they play with dolls or even in dress-up, they know enough of the story that they don’t have to imagine their own.


  9. pari

    Fiona,It’s a very fine line for many writers as to what to tell and what to leave to the reader’s imagination. I remember getting criticized for CLOVIS because I had very little description of protag. But, like you, I don’t want absolutely everything spelled out for me.

    As to the sense of place, that’s a biggie for me, too. I love to be in that world enough to own it and to be able to put myself there even when I’m not actively reading the book.

    The SF book you describe would leave me cold; I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

  10. pari

    JT,I love that story of the 30-year old woman. What a joy to have met her through your words.

    As to the lack of imagination in our culture, I do think it’s because we’ve become so lazy. So many people want to be spoonfed. They look at reading as work rather than relaxation.

    I think this also might have something to do with noise. Our world has become very loud, very distracting. Without at least a little quiet, it’s difficult to think — to hear your own thoughts and to create new ones.

  11. billie

    I just read an essay in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan, called “What Girls Want,” and a particular passage came into my head as I read your post today, Pari:

    “The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life– one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passe compose, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological need– to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others–are met precisely by the act of reading.”

    I would argue a bit that it’s not only adolescent girls who have the need for secret emotional lives – I think we all do to some degree, and the extent to which our creativity and imagination are fostered early on gives us tools to work through those emotional needs in healthy ways all through our lives.

    Novels give us endless opportunities to engage “safely” with all the very individual issues we bring to the table.

    Flanagan’s entire essay is very worthy of a read – I actually printed it out to save.

    I think one of the single most important things I’ve given my children (and myself) is unscheduled time. Being scheduled from sun-up to sundown is so rough on the development of imaginative thinking.

    Looking back, raw materials plus time made for many hours of imaginative play. Uncooked rice in a big tupperware tub with scoops and containers, a huge “sand pit” with shovels and pails and diggers and molds and access to the water hose. Copper wire and a small hammer. A small handsaw, woodworking tools, and our little forest.

    And of course, books. I keep organizing all the bookshelves in the house, and they end up in total disarray. My husband reminds me that this is because they are BEING USED. It’s the book equivalent to having the TV on all the time. 🙂

  12. pari

    Oooof, Stephen, that’s a rough view. But I think you’re right. Wouldn’t it be a kick if kids read hero myths and used those as the basis for place?

    “Hey! Look at me! I’m Odysseus!”

  13. pari

    Billie,This sounds like a marvelous article. Thank you for referencing it.

    As to scheduling and its impact on imagination, you’re right. Whatever happened to daydreaming?

    I know parents who keep their children going from morning to night with “enriching” activities. But everyone needs down time.

    We adults get into the pattern of running, running too.

    Even stopping to take a walk or stare at the blue sky through the branches of a winter tree becomes effortful.

    But stopping is the impetus for imagination. It’s difficult to be creative on the go.

  14. Jake Nantz

    Pari, this is a little spooky (cue music).

    I always tell my students the one reason I read. I explain to them that I get MY version of the story and characters when I read. However, a movie is giving me the Director’s version of the editor’s version of the cameraman’s version of the actor’s version of the character. So I tell them I would rather read, because that’s just too many people telling me what I should think, and I don’t like to be told what I should think.

    But it’s spooky because THIS MORNING, I gave my kids a hypothetical situation (as an intro to HAMLET), and asked them to write what they would say were they in that situation. Many commented that they couldn’t do it right because they couldn’t imagine the situation well enough in their minds. Because they don’t read, and in many cases, it’s because they didn’t have any idea what they would like.

    So I spent most of the class discussing what films they enjoy, and trying to pair them with authors (or at least genres) based on the STORIES they enjoyed. It felt great because about half of them took down the names/genres I gave them (Stoppard, Chandler, Sakey, Sokoloff [had a kid that likes hauntings, Alex!!], Rhoades, Card, Harris, Steinbeck, etc.).

    Great, but you can still see the spooky, right? 😀

  15. J.D. Rhoades

    “When they play with dolls or even in dress-up, they know enough of the story that they don’t have to imagine their own.”

    OTOH, my teenage son and his buddies are mad for Role Playing Games, some of them based around known fictional “worlds”(including Star Wars), where the whole point is to make up your own adventures.

    I remember when music videos first came out (yes, I AM that old) people were predicting that it would ruin music because people would have the video’s image of the song in their head, rather than the one you create in your own imagination. Whether this has actually occurred, or whether music’s been ruined by other forces, I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

  16. pari

    Jake,That is verrrrry spooky. Wow.

    It sounds like teachers need to help the younger generations figure out how to reclaim their imaginations. Without even realizing it, kids have already sacrificed their imaginations to some extent.

    You know, sometimes I feel like a really mean mom because I drastically limit my children’s television and computer time. But stories like yours, Jake, make me feel mighty justified in being this strict.

  17. pari

    JD,I’m interested in role-playing games precisely because of this issue. I wonder if they work kind of like radio in that some pieces of the imagination are taken away, but there’s still quite a bit of room for personalization.

    I never played formal games such as these though much of my childhood was spent pretending to be someone else 😉

  18. Allison Brennan

    Pari, a fantastic post. And it reminds me of something Stephanie Laurens said in a speech. She said that the reader is a participant in the creation of the story when she reads, and readers use their imagination. The author is the storyteller, but every reader brings their own values, experience, knowledge, and emotion to the story so no two readers will have the same experience when they read a book, nor the exact same image of a character. (She also went on to say that negative reviews or reader mail doesn’t bother her because “the reader was obviously having a bad imagination day.”)

    Tammy–I agree and disagree about branding. In some ways, I see your point–but my kids might be just different or weird. (I’ll take weird–I was always a bit odd, too.) My second grade son loves Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but he doesn’t re-enact what he’s seen, he creates completely new stories based in the world he’s been shown. For example, he informed me that there are 99 episodes of Star Wars, and in episode #97, Yoder dies. Yoder is Yoda’s brother, who’s introduced in episode # (he knows, I can’t remember). Then he continues with Obi “Two” Kenobi who is Obi “One” Kenobi’s evil brother. He went to the dark side of the force . . . I think some movies and some shows actually help spark imagination (as Dusty mentions in the role-playing games.) Even video games . . . my son wants to design video games when he grows up. He made a storyboard of his favorite video game (Pikmin) and then created bugs and treasures for Pikmin 3 (there are only 2.)

    Billie, I am totally with you on scheduled time. I know too many kids who have a half-dozen activities, something every day of the week. For older kids, fine–my oldest is an athlete and she has practice, workout or games every day. But she’s nearly 15 and it’s her choice. I told all my kids they can pick one thing a season (or year.) So my kindergardener was in gymnastics from age 3-5, but she wanted to do soccer, so we dumped gymnastics and she’s playing soccer now. My 7 year old for some reason picked golf (I don’t understand this, neither I nor my husband nor our close friends play golf, but he’s obsessed. I think because it’s an individual sport that has a lot to do with math.)

    Television doesn’t bother me–my rule is they can watch however much they want, but only programs (or videos) I’ve approved. It’s generally worked–my oldest rarely watches tv, #3 does but only if he’s doing something else at the same time, and the two littlest watch, but rarely longer than 30 minutes and only when they’re tired at the end of the day or early in the morning. It’s only #2 that didn’t work with . . . she was all tv, all the time, until last year when she discovered the “big” books. Now all she does is read and watch America’s Next Model. (Grr–can’t stand that show!)

  19. pari

    Allison,You covered so much in your comments, I can tell you’ve thought a lot about these issues, too.

    As to the reviews and readers, I am sooooooo there. I realized that with my last book; it’s what the reader brings to the table that affects how he or she is going to interpret the story. All I can do is write the best and truest story to my heart that I can.

  20. Catherine

    Both my daughter’s experiences of branded toy products had Barbie adventure in ways totally unsanctioned by Mattel. The youngest used to make up some very interesting subversive lyrical accompaniment. Said daughter is now in a punk/funk band.

    I used to read myth and legend to the eldest daughter as preschooler, as we had worked through fairytales fairly quickly. Even then she had a voracious desire for more tales, often.

    Pari when I read your story I truly imagined one woman having a very turmoil filled life.Living large,and dying tragically.

  21. pari

    Catherine,I remember playing with my friend’s Barbies and doing things that were probably very similar to what your daughter did. Of course, that was the turbulent 60s.

    Both of my children love myths. I remember adoring them too.

    As to the woman in my story, I won’t tell you how I saw her, but “tragic” and “living large” would be part of it for sure.


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