I’ve had this topic sitting in my blog slush pile for months now, and I’ve been reticent to tackle it, cuz I feel it’s a BIG topic. But I don’t have much time today to blog, so that’ll force me to dig quickly.
Obviously I’m begging the question with my title. It reminds of all those old corny black-&-white comedies with titles like, “Should Married Men Go Home?” “Are Waitresses Safe?” or “Do Detective Think?” (Our modern day equivalents are those horrible news show teasers: “Does drinking coffee cause radioactive urine?” Boy, THAT makes me want to hang around and watch more. Terror and absurdity – what great reporting! Like the tabloids screaming, “Is Batboy Attending Harvard?”) But I digress.
Obviously I feel that reading is a creative process or I wouldn’t be chatting about it. Now I know that I always harp about everything in life being “creative” – namely cuz it’s true. (Liberally speaking, we create carbon dioxide, excrement, noise, heat, etc.) But I’m speaking literally now – Reading is a Creative Process.
Here’s what I mean. People say that watching a movie or TV is a passive act. The most you have to do move your eyes around the screen a bit. You just sit there and let someone else’s creative vision seep into your eyes and ears. Granted. But we can’t forget that the brain is part of this process. If you were simply a recording device (like a video camera), then you’d take in audio and video passively. However, as humans we engage our thoughts and emotions with what we see and hear. We process information, connect images, dredge up memories, react to sounds & music, and form opinions. Hardly a passive act.
The Magic of Decoding
Reading (like listening to radio drama) requires the participant to be even more engaged than the film-goer. With words (and radio dialogue) there are no inherent pictures. It’s just a blank page with lines and lines of symbols (letters) that represent certain consonant and vowel sounds, which are then formulated into groupings (words) which define an idea (or often numerous ideas/meanings). We forget what a complex decoding goes on in our brains when we see pages and pages of symbols that we magically transform into words!
Furthermore, we turn these words into pictures. There is no ocean sunset on the page, but our minds can conjure up that image. There is no real killer stalking us in that book, yet our hearts race with fear based on the author’s wordsmithing.
There are two elements involved in storytelling through the written word.
1) The first element belongs to the writer. I’ve already mentioned “wordsmithing” – the ability to put words together in a concise, interesting, even poetic way. The better the wordsmith, the better the imagery. This is why some authors are “more gooder” than others – their ability to use words skillfully to convey thoughts. And let’s not forget their ability to have interesting thoughts! (That is always the mark of a writer: Ideas worth sharing and the ability to get those thoughts across to an audience.)
2) The second element is all on the shoulders of the reader. S/he has been handed a collection of crafted words. The reader must now decipher those words. (If the words are in Spanish and you speak English, you are not going to enjoy the story.) The reader must also translate the words into mental pictures and feelings.
Without those two elements – the creator and the decipherer – there will be no story.
Now that the reader has deciphered the words, what does he do with them? Does he just let them come and go like leaves in the wind – or does he pursue the words, looking for richness and meaning? Here’s a snippet from Hemmingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS – nothing too profound.
“The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare. There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.”
What does the reader do with this paragraph? Well, if the reader is a child, she may not understand the word “artillery,” so that imagery would be lost on her. If the reader grew up in flat Kansas, he may not know what night time is like in the mountains. If the reader doesn’t have the artistic experience to know that “a storm coming” may have two meanings, then some of the author’s storytelling has been lost.
I’m talking about the ability of the reader to decipher and appreciate the wordsmithing. Obviously, as the child reader matures, she will appreciate the artillery/summer lightning reference. When the Kansas dweller experiences a mountain, then that passage will mean more. The larger our life experience, the larger our understanding and appreciation of the arts. In order to feel what the book characters are feeling, we must have the emotional elasticity to appreciate, nay, to empathize with them. The more angst, fear, pain, and joy in our experience, the more we understand others. The more places we visit, the easier we can “be” where the protagonist is standing.
Therefore, reading IS a creative process. We must work at squeezing the most out of a story, be it on the screen or on a page. We owe it to ourselves to expand our horizons so we can appreciate the human condition when it is presented to us in story form. We should cherish all our emotions, both pleasant and un-, because it will enrich our enjoyment when we see other characters going through the same turmoil. We must run to the dictionary or find a website when we don’t understand a word or a locale or a literary reference. We owe it to the author… but more importantly, we owe it to ourselves.
There is much more to say on this topic, so I hope you appreciate that I’m simply doing a “hit and run” here. Have a great day in this vast experience we call Life.