Literary works may incur myriad responses, and no two readers will experience the exact same response to a given text; this much goes without saying. Some people may find my personal favourite book dull, others may find it thrilling; some may find it repugnant, and others may love it far more than I ever could.
For the sake of brevity, I would like to focus specifically on two types of ‘positive’ responses to literature, as it is these ‘positive’ responses we are seeking to evoke as writers. I am writing ‘positive’ in quotation marks as these responses needn’t be ‘positive’ in the sense that they evoke joy or glee, but ‘positive’ in the sense that one’s intent has roughly lined up with the response one desires. This is important, as it is far easier to begin a creative endeavour if you understand what you wish to achieve, rather than what you don’t wish to achieve. Generally, the response you wish your reader to experience is much narrower in definition than the responses you do not desire. As such, it is easier to define that response, and easier to define what you must do achieve that response.
Now, with all that treading on eggshells out of the way, let’s take a moment to be reductive!
‘Interesting’ and ‘Evocative’.
Those are the two ‘positive’ responses. It is my belief that they constitute either end of the spectrum of intent in writing, with all texts lying somewhere between the two, leaning more heavily to one side or the other. Most of us have only ever had experience with writing literature which attempts to be Interesting (perhaps more often classified as ‘academic’). The text does not seek to evoke an emotion in your reader and is instead constructed in a manner which should guide your reader to consider that which you have written, disseminate the ideas you have posited, and walk away from the text with an appreciation of its intellectual or technical depth. A crucial difference between such writing and Evocative writing is the implicit invitation that the reader attempt to deconstruct and challenge the ideas in your text.
A blog post like this, for example, demonstrates this theory. You are reading what I have written with extreme scrutiny, perhaps furrowing your brow, or pausing, and challenging what you have read when you encounter an idea or expression which is not ‘standard’ or is not in congruence with the rest of the text. I imagine a shift to a more personal tone as I address you, my reader, directly will be such an incongruent moment. And the intent behind my decision to shift away from my prior tone? Well, part of it is the fun of having a ‘gotcha’ moment, but the other, more important intent, is my intent to evoke an emotional reaction, one of surprise or shock; however mild. And for those who did not react as I had hoped, and are instead reading this, unimpressed, disgusted at my smug self-satisfaction, and to those who feel I am giving myself too much credit, I say the following: Gotcha.
FLAME: I must admit, I was gotcha’d in livid emotion.
Anyone with a background in secondary or higher education will have had experience with Interesting writing, and have no doubt been inundated with essay techniques and will have been grilled time and time again for the smallest deviation from such techniques. The path of is well trodden, and I see no need to tread it further.
Instead, I would very much like to focus on Evocative writing. I will not be discussing literary techniques or mechanics. Rather, I choose to focus this post on the most fundamental element of Evocative writing, this being the inception of your idea; the moment at which you think of something, a concept, a scene, even a name, and your inspiration comes into being.
To do this, I’d like to explain my own creative process as I have understood it, and to understand this process, I would like to work backwards. Below, you will find the tentative ‘prologue’ of a story I am working on.
There is nothing.
There is no one. There is no me. There is nothing but darkness. I have no hands to touch, no eyes to see. This place is void of all sensation.
I have no ears to hear, yet all I feel is the overbearing weight of the quiet. Every fibre of my being resonates with it, with its absolute absence. I have waited. Beyond memory I’ve waited for a single sound to break the tyranny the silence holds over this place. Nothing. I try to scream, to cry out and make rebellious noise, yet I have no lungs, no mouth, no voice. Nothing. No matter how hard I try; there is nothing. I cannot try, and nothing can be… The silence grows heavier as each moment passes me by. Time passes and passes, slowly falling away. Falling away…
It feels like I’m falling. Falling forever into the darkness. The longer I stay in this place, this empty place, the further I fall from what I knew before; from who I had been. I don’t remember much. I remember feeling, I remember hearing, I remember seeing. I remember just enough to understand how unhappy this place makes me. I remember falling. Falling out of myself and into nothing. Falling, over and over, forever…
Forever, I have known nothing. There was nothing before, there is nothing now, and there will always be nothing. Nothing, with me at its centre. Yet there is no ‘me’. My being has no boundaries. There is no centre. I never begin, so I cannot end. I am the void of sensation. I am the darkness, I am the silence. I am my own tyrant and my rule extends into the infinite. But it is empty, and so am I. There is no ‘me’. I am unbound, infinite, everything. I am the darkness, I am the silence. I am Nothing, falling deeper and deeper into myself.
I feel time is passing again. The more of it passes, the slower it drags. My Nothingness consumes everything. Time stops.
Each thought becomes its own labour.
I grow tired.
There is no one.
I am Nothing.
I am everything.
There is Nothing.
Now, let’s try to follow the steps and see how this passage came to be.
I have trouble falling asleep some nights. Something which helps me doze off is reconstructing the day, start-to-finish in my head. I’ll try to recall everything I did in chronological order, until I hit a dead end and arrive to the present moment. In doing so, I consider how the things I did made me feel, how they may have made others feel. I think about how other people made me feel, why I felt that way, and I find myself in a more peaceful, mindful state, ready to fall asleep. With my mind ‘empty’ and the day ‘resolved’, I drift further and further into sleep.
Unfortunately, it is at this moment that I am at my most creative. With my mind primed to continue visualizing events, but nothing of the day left to visualize, I begin to visualize fantastical and imagined scenarios.
Yes, I realize how ridiculous and impenetrable this sounds, but please just bear with me a little longer.
One night, I was thinking about firefighters; about the dedication and courage one must have to plunge oneself into a raging inferno to make sure those trapped inside find their way out in one piece. This led me to the image which led to the prologue above. I envisioned a fireman, collapsed on the floor of an apartment hallway. Smoke is billowing out of the edges of closed doors, and is rising up the stairwell attached to the hallway. A being a pure light is standing above the fireman’s body. It is wearing his clothes, and it stares at his corpse. Perhaps disappointed and indifferent, like it had known this day would come, it is his soul, and it knows it has died.
For whatever reason, this image resonated with me. I didn’t know why, but I knew that when I pictured that image, I felt something. Some ineffable emotion took hold of me, a sense of awe mixed with dread, and I knew I wanted to write about it. This led to a story the premise of which is a lost soul appearing above the recently deceased as a ‘vessel’ for their final wish, granting them closure before allowing them passage to the afterlife. As the soul itself has no physical being, the prologue describes the reality the soul finds itself in when it is not acting as a ‘vessel’ for the wishes of others.
It is precisely this resonance which I would allege is key to finding your inspiration. Contained within this resonant emotion is a response: Your response. Why you may experience this response, I cannot say; that much is for you to find out. But all through this post, I have spoken of responses, and achieving a response in your reader. This resonant emotion has succeeded in evoking such a response out of you; it has made you the reader of your own emotions.
This all sounds well and good, but how is it meant to help you find inspiration? Well, now it’s your turn!
As I mentioned earlier; the things that matter to me may be completely meaningless to you. It’s possible to write about things that don’t matter to you, sure, but if you’re looking to write an inspired and fulfilling text, it must resonate with you personally. If you’re still reading and haven’t had a resonant image come to mind, then try to follow the steps below.
Your first step should be to do what I have done, and attempt to describe the image or scenario which has drawn this powerful feeling out of you in as meticulous detail as possible. Ideally, you want your reader to see the same thing you see when you imagine your idea. They may not feel the same thing, but that’s not what matters, what matters is that the idea is in-and-of itself evocative. If your idea is powerful enough to evoke a powerful emotion in you, it will no doubt evoke a powerful emotion in your reader.
As an aside, make sure you don’t forget your ideas! When something resonates with you, or evokes some ineffable emotion in you, write it down, and keep a pen and paper beside your bed.
That’s the easy part. If you want to develop the idea you’ve had, you have to understand two things about it:
- What does it make you feel?
- Why does it make you feel that?
In the case of my firefighter; I feel an immense sense of awe and dread. The reason I feel that way is because the image captures an acceptance of death, and the commitment to help others when you are incapable of helping yourself anymore. It is a representation of the ultimate selfless act, wherein one has understood that they are about to pass from this reality, and they are committing their final act to helping another human being.
With those concepts in mind, you are ready to write your story. Begin with this idea as your pivotal moment and explore its implications. In my case, I began asking questions such as:
- If we define ourselves by our altruism, how self-serving is our altruism?
- How readily can you commit yourself to ideals and other people before you lose your sense of who you really are?
- What happens when we wholly project our identity onto an external entity? What do we become?
The answers to those questions will lead me to further images and scenarios, which I will commit to paper. Then, I will ask how those scenarios make me feel, and why they make me feel that way. I will explore those emotions by expanding what I have written, and in doing so, will find further questions, which will lead me to further images and scenarios. And so on, and so forth.
This process has helped me write more in a few months than I have in my whole life prior, and it has helped me produce work I am deeply proud of. It is my hope that through my explanation of this process that you have found something you can use in your own creative writing, and that it helps you find the inspiration you’ve been waiting for all this time!
To bring it all together: This process has taught me a valuable lesson; You cannot hope to evoke a response in your reader if you fail to understand that same response in yourself. However, once you come to understand why you respond to an idea in a specific way, that understanding may be leveraged, and used as a truly vast source of inspiration.
~Igor Bunjevac, Igor Bunjevac