A friend emailed me this photo. I typed in to reply, “This photo warms m...” and some gmail robot, energized by 1s and 0s, not a drop of emotion in his system, completed my sentence, “warms my heart.”
THE BASTARD DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A HEART. How the hell could he, COULD IT feel the same as me towards these elephants snuggling together, dozing the afternoon away?
In George Orwell’s pamphlet Politics and English Language, Orwell called these “ready-made phrases”, a phrase which countless others have said. It’s pre-packaged language that we utter without adding our own creativity to it. Nothing uniquely us lives within these phrases. The words are predictable and cliche and lack heart.
Ready-made phrases are parasites to good writing.
In the 21st century, as we compose an email, we see these phrases appear in real-time. And tragically, we’re encouraged to use them. Simply hit tab and AI will write the sentence for you. You’ll save a microsecond! And you’ll save all that brain power! The beauty of optimization.
How many other emails of mine could’ve been written by AI? “Sounds good”, “Hope you’re well”, “Just checking in,” HECK, just yesterday I wrote “All that glitters isn’t gold.” Omg, this isn’t me.
Screw this! I scream and push my chair away from my desk. This robot cannot express how I feel. I declare, “When something warms — or breaks or angers or you name the damn emotion — warms my heart like these elephants do, I vow to write it in a way that only I can! I will find my unique voice behind these phrases!”
But I’m unsure where to find my voice. If it’s not the tab key...
I grab a paperclip and pop off the tab key from my keyboard. Underneath I see arm hairs and cookie crumbs and dust mites. I tilt the keyboard up, flip it over and tap the crumbs out. My voice isn’t there. I swipe them onto the floor. And after I take a sip of coffee and vacuum my floor and tap a few more crumbs out and vacuum again, my eyes land back on the elephants.
What do they inspire? I close my eyes.
Behind my eye-lids, I pause, until an asteroid appears followed by a famished lion, then bright, green nickelodeon goo pouring on some white man. My eyes snap open. Images! Images are authentically me. Yet, pfff, these have nothing to do with the photo. Where do I find images related to this photo?
What matters to me?
When I first saw this photo, I looked at it without patience and I responded before I saw anything that mattered to me. All I saw was a pack, a family of elephants. Seven elephants. Dead. Maybe tranquilized. Actually they’re sleeping. They’re cuddling. It's a nice photo, warming, I thought. And so I wrote —
“This photo warms my heart.” (Response Version 1)
All of that feels like I’m tapping crumbs out onto the desk. There’s nothing of substance. What specifically in this photo moves me? What arrests my attention?
The foot of the upper left elephant resting against his companion's back. I dearly miss that feeling, resting my foot against a lover's leg while asleep.
“Ugh, the elephant’s foot resting against his companion’s back warms my heart.” (Response Version 2)
Although this feels closer to my voice, still something about it feels inauthentic. But this revealed a passage, a passage into my imagination!
Behind this foot, I feel a lot of emotion. E-motion, energy in motion. My imagination stirs. What does this foot remind me of? What memories are swirling about behind this door? What emotions? And what actions are these emotions wanting me to take?
I’m going to go where these parasites cannot survive. To rewrite this email response into something only I can say. I will go deeper into my imagination than I’ve ever gone before.
I look and see the elephant’s foot again, and I step through the door, by closing my eyes, into the land of emotions and desires and memories... a dream world.
Why does it matter? What memories arise?
Behind my eyelids, I vaguely see my ex-girlfriend and I, laying in our California king bed in Mexico.
We are enduring a three-month long stint in the relationship. She struggles to love me for fear of being hurt, I struggle to love her for fear of hurting her. After a conversation about our future, our unknown future, we fall asleep, opposite sides of the bed, an ocean of blankets separating our backs. In the middle of the night, I wake up. We had faced each other. My ankle rests on her leg. I feel the prickles of her unshaven leg, from weeks of her feeling too lethargic to care for herself. I eased back into dreams.
When I reopen my eyes, on my computer screen in front of me, I see the elephants and this resting foot. I see them differently.
“Ugh, the elephant’s foot resting against his companion’s prickly back warms my heart.”
It warms my heart! NO. That’s the cliche, that’s the enemy to my unique voice. Instead —
“Just think, probably days before this journey, he and his companion were having marital problems, she bickering about him not returning before sundown, out philandering with other cows, while he would return to their tree and to drown her out by drinking copious amounts of dirty water. Yet they stuck together, embarking on a long journey. Together, they laid.” (Response Version 3)
A smile had lifted onto my face. How fun.
I close my eyes again, returning to where I see my girlfriend’s prickly leg. A swirl of emotion barrels right into me.
What does it make you feel and want to do?
Seeing her prickly leg, I feel love and care. I want to wake her up and tell her I'm sorry and how I miss falling asleep together. I want to grab her hand and run us outside, run us barefoot across the dirtied street, to the beach where we watch the sunrise over the calming ocean. And while we give thanks to papa sol for rising again, I want to protect us from the coolness of the night by wrapping a blanket around us.
Yet I also feel anger towards her, why do we let ourselves fall asleep back to back? I like when we face each other and reach across the blankets to hold hands. I want that.
I reopen my eyes. The photo has changed again. I also, as the father elephant, feel anger at my companion. Why do we ever sleep standing up?
“Here’s a story. Once upon a time there was a family of elephants. Every day, they slept standing up, like every other elephant in the history of the world. One day they migrated across the country, hundreds of kilometers. Because of that, out of pure exhaustion, they slept laying down. The father felt in a position of care and protection and from this day forward, decided his family would always sleep laying down. And eventually ALL elephants evolved to sleep laying down.” (Response Version 4)
That’s my raw experience!
From behind my eyelids, exists another form of auto-fill, one of images. Instead of pre-package phrases, emergent-images. Instead of cliches, raw sensations. Instead of reacting and rushing, we pause and wait. Instead of computer-generated artificial-intelligence, biological-generated natural-intelligence!
Coming out of my dream world, I proudly state, “I am ready to write a new email response!”
In the gmail browser, I delete, “This photo warms my heart,” and I type —
“Oh wow! Do you think this family will ever sleep standing up again? I just see the elephant’s foot resting against his companion’s prickly back and think he’ll never want it any other way. I wouldn’t.” (Response Version 5)
I smile rereading that response. It could not be auto-filled by any AI in the world. Even in hundreds of years!
And I’m sure, I feel it, I found my unique voice.
When we pause and wait for our imagination to ignite, we burn every parasite that’s near. And in the ash, we’re left with writing that is more us. Writing in our voice. I don’t have to worry about saying something unique, because how I say it will be unique. Writing that I’ll feel proud of and want to share. Hey, look, this is me! I wrote this.
Thank you for reading.
Hey, dear reader.
New writers feel they are rephrasing and repeating information that's already out there. But it’s less about the information and it’s more about these ready-made phrases. Instead of entering their imagination, they write the first thing that comes to mind, pre-package and automated language.
Instead of looking for something unique in the world, look for what's unique in you.
I still have A LOT to say, but I’m no longer mad at my AI counterpart. I now feel pity for him. After I’m done here, he’ll have no one to vicariously live through.
Two practical ways to use imagination while writing
1. Line Editing A Shitty First Draft
Write fast, then go back and edit in visuals.
Here’s a draft paragraph I wrote for my newsletter which lacks fresh imagery —
“A decade of my life was spent gaining money from people who had gambling problems. They bet against me. And they lost. They lost money which could have been spent improving their life.”
The last sentence lacks emotional punch. I feel sad writing it but not reading it. How could I add visuals to make the reader feel that sad?
I want to show how they are losing money and how that affects their lives. “Improving their life” is the first phrase that came to me. It’s pre-packaged. To imagine the effects of their life, I linger on three different topics, (1) education, (2) food, (3) gifts for a spouse — I hold these in my mind, until a specific image emerges.
Education — I see books. Then I see a father, working a menial job, which books could be his way out. I see a father, under candle light, wife asleep next to him, reading a book which will unfetter him from his menial job. I see a father, reading a passage in a book that motivates him to start his own business, unfettering him from a menial job.
Version 1: They lost money which could have been spent improving their life.
Version 2: They lost money which was for education or food or gifts.
Version 3: They lost money which was for a book that contains a passage which rescues him from his menial job or for epsom salts for his wife so she can relax after a stressful day or for a lunchbox with an extra sandwich.
With a few iterations, a bland sentence becomes a heartache. Instead of telling the reader how to feel, we show them. That’s the power of the imagination!
Patiently look until you see. It’s a skill.
2. Write slow! While writing, look for opportunities to ignite the imagination.
A friend told me he can’t run the zoom call. I could say, Okay. But I feel an opportunity for me to take the steering wheel. So I respond, Okay, I’ll take the wheel.
I pause to wonder, what type of wheel am I grabbing? A boat? A car? A bus. When we started these zoom-calls a team of people showed up, all eager to be around the writing coach. So I picture him a driving football bus. Yet lately it’s often just me and him. Our bus has shrunk, into a short one. I’m the only student left. He picks me up and is patient and kind to my grade school level reading and writing.
I write, Okay, I’ll take the wheel, albeit lonely driving a big bus by myself.
The images informed my words.
“When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.” — George Orwell
Writing doesn’t need to be a process that we CRUSH and SLAY. It can be a meditation, one where we pause and wait for images to bubble up and animate before we reach out and capture them.
Here are some questions that rest on my desk —
Looking patiently, what do you see? What sentences are meaningful? What image is underneath the sentence?
Why are they meaningful? What do they remind you of? What memories arise?
How does it make you feel? What do those feelings make you want to do?
Orwell says, "A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself [...]”
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Dec 8, 2021