In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer states that “…[the
writer] very quickly loses the ability to see his prose as a reader… He knows
exactly what he’s trying to say, but that’s because he’s the one saying it. In
order to construct a … coherent narrative, he needs to edit as if he knows
nothing, as if he’s never seen these words before.” (132)


To
paraphrase Lehrer, we can ascribe this problem to neurological pathways traveled
too often. Somehow, we writers have to shake it up, to read our prose as what
Zadie Smith called “smart strangers,” and what Lehrer refers to as “outsiders.”
How? Here’s what Samuel Taylor Coleridge did:

One of his favorite
pastimes was attending public chemistry lectures in London, watching eminent
scientists set elements on fire. When Coleridge was asked why he spent so much
time watching these pyrotechnic demonstrations, he had a ready reply. “I attend
the lectures,” Coleridge said, “so that I can renew my stock of metaphors.” He
knew that we see the most when we are on the outside looking in.” (Lehrer, 134)
 
Lehrer concludes that “…the only way to
remain creative over time—to not be undone by our expertise—is to experiment
with ignorance. To stare at things we don’t fully understand.” (134)
 
(Click to enlarge image.)

Hence the reason novelist Zadie Smith encouraged
writers to put away the draft for a significant period of time, to be allowed the
opportunity to see it as alien writing; to see not as its author, but to stare
as if we’re trying to understand.
 
 
Perhaps
this is why I’m drawn to drawing as a way to stare. When I wrote Up North at the Cabin, for example, I
wrestled with a legion of words to “show” how a canoe is portaged between
bodies of water. I hoped the reader could almost experience it herself if I
compared it to something she already knew. What I needed was a fresh metaphor,
a way of seeing from the outside to effect something inside the reader. I drew
a picture which resembled a banana on toothpicks (the canoe flipped over the
portagers’ shoulders, a walking hull). But that was no banana. Its skin was hard,
more like a shell. I posed questions about this sketch as if I were a space
alien (that “smart stranger” scanning the new world for resemblances: What has
a hard shell and many legs? Aha—a beetle!). Aha! I had my metaphor:  
On the portage
trail,
we sling the
canoe over our heads.
Its backbone to
the sky,
we trudge along—
an armored
beetle homeward bound.
 
We
must get outside of our own heads by staring or drawing or forgetting it all in
a drawer. Dear Writer, what are you staring at today?

Marsha Wilson Chall is the author of a chapter book for children and many picture books, including Up North at the Cabin, an American Booksellers Pick of the Lists and winner of an International Reading Association Teacher’s Choice Award; Bonaparte, a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children and winner of a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award; and One Pup’s Up, a Bank Street College of Education Best Books, and winner of a National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) Gold Award. 

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