GUEST POST: Serious writing must mirror both reality and imagination

Will Ellwood asks the simple question, can serious writing succeed without facing both the real…and the fantastic? Follow Will on Twitter @fragmad

Discovering your voice as a writer is more complex problem than is often acknowledged. This is not a problem of simple replicable craft that can be taught in a classroom, but is instead an aesthetic question which must be reflected on alone. One question that all writers have to face in this prcess is how we write about both about the real world of our experience, and the fantastic world of our imagination.

Our answer to this question will affect not only our voice as a writer, but also how we think about narrative in all its many forms and how we understand the world we live in. Each writer’s answer to this question is the mirror that they will use to observe both the objective reality they live in and their internal subjective imagination.

One source of inspiration for writers trying to find this mirror are the hundreds of very different art manifestos that have been written since the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto in 1909. Somewhere in this house I have a book published by Penguin with 100 artists’ manifestos in it. Personally I have sympathy with several different manifestos, including the Stuckist writing manifesto, “The Cappuccino Writer and the idiocy of contemporary writing,” and the first Imagist manifesto. But the manifesto that really gets me excited is Rudy Rucker‘s Transrealist Manifesto.

The Transrealist manifesto was first published in the Bulletin of Science Fiction Writers of America, #83, Winter, 1983 and it adopts the confrontational tone expected of all manifestos. In the essay, Rudy Rucker describes Transrealist fiction as fiction that takes people, places, events and problems from the author’s life and reassembles these components into new fictional narratives. Unlike classical realist fiction, it encourages the use of science fiction and fantasy tropes to exaggerate and satirise the issues the author is exploring.

According to Rudy Rucker, the name comes from cover of the British edition of Philip K. Dick‘s “A Scanner Darkly” which called the novel a “transcendental autobiography”.

It is my belief that Transrealism provides a way to observe the world that allows writers to write fiction that affects me more than the juvenile cartoons contained in most science fiction and fantasy, good or bad, currently do. In Rudy’s A Writing Toolkit, he provides the original Transrealist manifesto along with a commentary of his recent thoughts on the subject. In this commentary he provides a list of features from his first ideas about Transrealism.

  • Use the SF tropes to express deep psychic archetypes.
  • Include a main character similar to yourself. Don’t glorify the character by making him or her unrealistically powerful (not a general in the space navy, e. g.) or well-balanced.
  • Base your other characters on real people you know, or on combinations of them. Avoid stock characters.
  • Don’t lay too much stress on plotting the book in advance; let the interactions of the characters, the thought experiments and the power chords generate the action.
  • Adopt a populist, anti-authoritarian political stance.

It is important to remember when faced with such a list that your version of Transrealism will not be Rucker’s. While manifestos tend to read like strict prescriptions, the value they provide only comes when they are meditated on and modified to taste. For example, from the moment I read the Transrealist Manifesto I disagreed with the requirement to avoid writing detailed outlines for stories. I do write outlines, but I write them and revise them as prototype versions of the final story.

Rudy Rucker’s own opinions on Transrealism have changed over the last thirty years. He no longer considers it a fundamental necessity for him to base all the characters on his friends and family members. (They got tired of it.) Even after dropping some parts of his original version of Transrealism Rudy Rucker still describes the idea of Transreal SF as being: “…the notion of basing SF on real ideas and real emotions that I personally have, and using immediate reality-based perceptions.”

This blending of autobiographical real life with the strange is what SF’s literary crowd should aim for. There will always be a place for mass-market escapism and genre sausages; its purpose is to entertain and distract the reader from the everyday mundane. But that comforting distraction is nearly always reactionary, avoiding the horrible and mundane is avoiding what makes us human. Transrealism offers a readers a glimpses of deeper truths. I would suggest there is more ways to write truthful SF than just Transrealism, there are many different shapes of mirror each with their own reflective properties. Where these other approaches are similar to Transrealism is they are all attempting to answer the fundamental question that all serious writers must face: “How do I write about the world I experience and the world I imagine?” I just happen to be an advocate for the Transrealist agenda.

So, how do you write about the world you experience and the world you imagine?

Rudy Rucker’s latest novel Jim and the Flims is available from Night Shade books.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

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