Visualizing the Scene

I read an interview this morning with Andrzej Sapkowski, author of The Witcher books, that struck a surprising chord. In it, he states, “Believe or not, when I write I don’t see any pictures. It is not a visual process with me. I see letters only and I work with letters.”

As a writer myself, I was floored. I mean . . . what? I operate so unflinchingly opposite to this that I had to stop a moment and collect myself. Visualizing my work is the very first thing I do, long before putting a finger to the keyboard. Usually, it begins with a song. Music is a huge influence on my writing (or is it that my writing is a huge influence on my music tastes?). Music was my first creative outlet and I wanted to be a musician from a young age and into my late-teen years so it stands to reason that it would still impact how I create. I’ve created entire books from a single song that inspired a single scene that unwound itself into a fully-fledged world. I can easily visualize each scene, clear as if I had witnessed it in real life. It is absolutely integral to how I create, and from my many discussions with other writers both online and in person, I am not alone here.

Visualizing scenes is one of the primary tenets of writing in many ways. Show, don’t tell is something preached to both inexperienced and experienced authors alike. What does the character see? Smell? Hear? We’re drilled over and over to visualize and contextualize a scene with specificity in order to avoid unnecessary telling, so that to have an author proclaim that they do not see images when writing makes my own writer brain melt.

As reported by The New York Times, The University of Greifswald in Germany performed a study in 2014 on the creative writing process, where the brains of participants were monitored while both copying a script and creating their own stories. “Some regions of the brain became active only during the creative process, but not while copying, the researchers found. During the brainstorming sessions, some vision-processing regions of volunteers became active. It’s possible that they were, in effect, seeing the scenes they wanted to write.”

The entire article is a fascinating piece, but the final line stood out the most. “The very nature of creativity can make it different from one person to the next, and so it can be hard to see what different writers have in common. [One author] might have activated the taste-perceiving regions of his brain when he recalled the flavor of a cookie. But another writer might rely more on sounds to evoke a time and place.”

Creativity is not a tangible item to be dissected and there is no one correct way to write, yet my foundations are still shaken to imagine writing a scene without actually imagining it. But there is power and beauty in culling the image from a word, something that potentially gets lost in translation when scheming up an entire book with points of view and protagonists and antagonists, tension and backstory. It might be why many, many readers find poetry so intimidating—where every word is its own powerhouse, carefully molded so that no other word might ever be exchanged. It’s complex in its simplicity, it makes us work for the image (if there even is an image). The words are no longer in service to a larger narrative, but in service to themselves. In poetry we are not being led anywhere, but thrown into a tornado and left to forge our own way to enlightenment (whatever that may be).

I don’t claim to understand any part of Mr. Sapkowski’s writing process, and as of now he has afforded a level of success with his stories that I could only dream of, and perhaps his method is one reason why.

Or perhaps not.

What I do know is that I will never be able to look at any of his pieces again without thinking of this interview. We writers already agonize over word choice more than most, and I look forward to continuing the tradition with even more panic-stricken vigor. Who will join me?