My three most recent books all needed an illustrator, and I’m still meditating on the complex, enchanting, puzzling experience of watching another human being draw pictures of something I imagined.
Here’s what it’s puzzling. All of my stories have an illustrator – inside my head. The story-maker in my brain provides vivid images for every face, every scene. I can see them all.
But only I can see them. And because I am not an artist, that makes them invisible to anyone but me.
Perfectly understandable. The idea of working with an artist, who reads my words and draws a picture of them, is deeply thrilling.
But also disconcerting.
Her pictures do not look like my pictures. They can’t. She can’t see into my head, and I can’t draw what I see in my head. And there you are.
And where are you? Why, back at the same place I often find myself. It’s a familiar twist in the writing path for me. I imagine it has a bench with my name on it. “Melinda was here. Again.” It’s the spot that muses endlessly on what is real and what is make-believe. What is fiction, really?
Are all human creations fiction, to an extent? We aren’t God, any of us. Our ability to create at all is derivative, in a way. But some of the things we create can be seen by other people exactly. For example, if I bake a loaf of bread or knit a scarf, you can pick them up and look at them, and, eye-sight permitting, you will see the same loaf and the same scarf that I see.
But what happens when our more intangible creations are tipped over the edges of our minds and fall into the tangible world? What happens when someone else tries to draw a picture of them, or even to describe them? (Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone to a film version of a favorite book and thought “That’s not what he looked like at all!” when the first character walked on screen.)
Are the images in my mind the “real” ones? Are they memories of something that actually happened? Yes and no. Is the author the final expert on what the story and its people look like?
Careful. That’s a dangerous question.
If you answer no, you set the text adrift from the author, which is always a tricky business. There would be no text without the author, after all.
But if you answer yes, you disqualify the readers. All of them. None of them will see and hear what the author saw and heard, writing the story. But without readers, the story has no life.
Without readers, the story exists only in the author’s imagination. No one sees or hears it “perfectly” except the author. But if this perfection is necessary, no one but the author will ever see or hear it at all.