Monday musings: The difference between imagination and memory

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Photo: Photo by Vidar Kristiansen on Unsplash

What’s the difference between the way a writer imagines a realistic scene, and the way a reader experiences something? Could it be similar to the difference between the way we watch a motion picture about, say, a day at the lake, and the way we remember a day at the lake?

I sometimes edit novels for other writers, looking for ways to improve the story and the way it’s told, without changing the author’s voice.

I have noticed I often change or suggest a change to a particular kind of writing: excessive description of a sequence of small actions. They’re little things that happen in a story, but that the reader doesn’t need to read. And it makes me think about the difference between the way we remember and the way we imagine.

I’ll make up an example here:

She pulled the lever and opened the car door. She stepped onto the dirt driveway in front of the summer cabin, and walked past the old porch in front. She passed the little cedar trees that had never grown very high, past the big old maple and down to the wooden dock. She walked to the end, and sat down on the boards. She removed her sandals and dipped her bare feet into the lake, only to jerk them out—cold!

It’s way too wordy. Sure, it describes what happened. It takes the reader through all the action. But it doesn’t actually bring the reader into the setting. And do we really need to read every single action?

When I think back to summer days at the lake, I don’t really think of long sequences. My memories are things like seeing my grandfather standing in his wooden boat, tinkering with something in his hands as the boat bobbed gently on the water. Or the backs of my father and grandfather, looking up at the big tin barrel that collected rainwater as the wind rippled the backs of their shirts. Or sitting on a dull, cloudy afternoon on a big rock over the shore, my uncle beside me, holding a toy fishing rod in my hand.

Which brings me to the original question: what’s the difference between imagination and memory?

It’s an important question, as things like “false memory syndrome” have a bearing on criminal cases. And maybe it’s part of the profound influence of motion pictures on our whole society.

Think about the passage above. It’s not from any particular book, but it’s typical of what I tend to tell a writer to re-write. And it’s kind of cinematic. It might be the way a screenwriter would provide instructions to a cinematographer. It has all the action, something that an actor and a camera operator could follow.

This is how I remember arriving at my grandfather’s summer cottage.

Thin fir boles and low-hanging evergreen branches framed the back of the cottage. The tires crunched softly over the dirt and forest litter before the car bounced to a stop. I popped out of the back seat—no thought of seat belts then—to be greeted by the scent of forest and water and the outhouse tucked behind a thin screen of bushes.

I ran around the log cabin, reaching out to touch the structure supporting the tin barrel that collected rainwater. The lake gleamed far below the cabin, separated by a steep slope crowded with dark evergreens and lighter deciduous bushes. A bright leopard frog leaped away, into the bushes as my sneaker-clad feet made soft drumbeats on the beaten ground of the path down to the dock.

See? Flashes, like the “Live” setting on photos on my iPhone these days. Not a long cinematic sequence.

What do you think? Are your memories more like cinematic sequences, or short live photographs?

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About Scott Bury