Sunday, October 10, 2021

Writers' Pantry #91: Musing on the Factual and the Imaginary

(and the possible effect of cultural differences)

My recent Weekly Scribblings prompt, Keeping it Real, proved difficult for most to adhere to. Don't feel bad – this is partly down to the prompter. I didn’t spell it out that Realism in art and literature involves looking from the outside and portraying / describing that.

However, I did give plenty of examples, and my prompt didn’t ask people to write about realism (though I am thinking in hindsight I'd have done well to give you that option) but to write ‘realistically’ / ‘from a realistic perspective’.

So I found it fascinating – why did so many have so much trouble being able to do that? 

The Subjective

First of all, it seems we have huge trouble not being subjective – myself included. It's as if some of us simply can't. (Which is rather scary, as objectivity is so often needed when navigating life!) It is possible to write Realism with oneself as subject, but it's more difficult. One needs to stand outside oneself mentally, as an onlooker.

I am thinking there is, perhaps, a cultural aspect. Individualism is highly valued in our culture and has long been so, to the extent that its value is taken for granted and we're probably all conditioned that way from an early age without even realising it. (In some other societies – the tribal, the Socialist, many other species – the group as a whole is considered more important.) A subjective point of view seems to follow naturally from our focus on the rights and importance of the individual.

The Imagined

Also, in what we think of as the Western world, poetry is the realm of the metaphorical. Stories, too, it is agreed, come at least partly from the imagination.

The best-known form of Japanese literature, the haiku, is rooted in nature, whether observed or recollected. Even when the writer’s feelings are included, they are those directly experienced, not imagined. Metaphor is eschewed in traditional haiku. Instead we may have a juxtaposition of two apparently unconnected images, which allows for a mental leap, an understanding beyond what is written on the page. That, however, is still in the realm of reality, not fiction.

Many Westerners have enormous difficulty understanding how to write haiku, instead producing three-line verses of 5, 7 and 5 syllables per line, which are not haiku. Many things make them ‘not haiku’; the use of metaphor, internal dialogue and imagination are some.

Realism and Naturalism

Realism in art became synonymous with the early days of Communism in Russia, as a departure from what was seen as Western decadence (one reason I included the photo of Lenin’s statue in my Scribblings post). It was fashionable to extol the workers by depicting them engaged in their work – in fact not always very truthfully, though purporting to be. Manual labour was officially regarded as a noble calling. This is not something given much attention in non-Communist countries – where realism tends to pertain only to landscapes and portraits (and not all of them).

This article on realism in 19th Century Russian literature tells us:

The general characteristics of 19th-century Russian realism include the urge to explore the human condition in a spirit of serious enquiry, although without excluding humor and satire; the tendency to set works of fiction in the Russia of the writer’s own day; the cultivation of a straightforward style, but one also involving factual detail; an emphasis on character and atmosphere rather than on plot and action; and an underlying tolerance of human weakness and wickedness.  The leading realists began to be published in the late 1840s: the novelists Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Count Leo Tolstoy; the playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky; the poet Nikolai Nekrasov; and the novelist and political thinker Aleksandr Herzen.

The author goes on to explain how this movement, portraying the condition of the people under Tsarist rule, actually led to the Communist revolution of 1917.

There are some parallels in the literature of non-Communist countries, e.g. (just to take one example) John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, about the terrible conditions for farm labourers and others during the Great Depression, published in 1939. In fact this book has been cited as an example of Naturalism, which takes Realism further. This site, which goes into detail about both, differentiates them thus: 

Realism is a literary movement that began in the middle of the nineteenth century in France and spread across Europe. This movement can be defined as a reaction against Romanticism. Realistic literature depicts ordinary people in everyday situations. They depicted events that could happen to anyone in real life.  Realism portrays life as it is, without idealizing, flattering or romanticizing. 

Naturalism proceeded from realism [and] is often referred to as a logical outgrowth of literary Realism. It can be considered as an exaggerated form of realism since it used detailed realism to propose that social conditions, heredity, and environment were the three main forces in shaping human character.

Wikipedia tells us that The Grapes of Wrath ‘won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it was cited prominently when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.’ However, we are also told that it was a controversial book at the time of its publication and in some quarters was denounced as socialist propaganda. Now known as a great classic, it was banned in many places.

Summing Up

Whatever the reasons, it seems those of us in this community are used to using our imaginations in our writing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I’d hate to see it change! It produces some beautiful and wondrous results.

However, I think it’s good to expand our techniques. Describing something ‘from the outside’ in such a way that we – in the famous phrase – ‘show, don’t tell’ can be a useful exercise.  

I’ll leave you with that suggestion, to take up or not.

Meanwhile, for our next Weekly Scribblings
, Magaly invites us to write poetry or prose inspired by personal symbols. Not a symbol that holds the same meaning for everyone, but something special to you. For example, Serena Williams has a lucky pair of socks; Helen Mirren has a lucky pair of shoes; Benicio del Toro says that he wears a ring with a wooden core so he can always knock on wood whenever needed.

And, for our Writers' Pantry today,  you may let your imaginations run as wild as you like, and share whatever you will – poetry or prose; new or old; any subject, form or style. Only, if it’s prose, we ask that you restrict it to 369 words.

Post it on your blog, add the link to your post to Mister Linky below, enjoy reading each other and leaving what encouraging comments you’re moved to. Also we’re always interested to  receive your comments here.

The prompt will stay open a week.



  1. Dear Rosemary,
    Thank you for filling in the blanks "in my brain" regarding Realism in art/writing. This quote is so helpful ... 'Realism portrays life as it is, without idealizing, flattering or romanticizing.' Also .. 'It is possible to write Realism with oneself as subject, but it's more difficult. One needs to stand outside oneself mentally, as an onlooker.' Wishing you a lovely week.

    1. Dear Helen, Thank you for the thanks! I wish you a lovely week too.

  2. Hi Rosemary, I appreciate the time you took to craft today’s post. It’s brilliant, very informative as well as a suggestion worth considering in an attempt to grow as a writer.

    There’s so much that can be said about the effect of cultural differences; the individualistic and collectivist societies, and high value placed on individualism…

    Concerning my difficult in writing and reading realism, I sometimes find depiction of events in real life a bit heavy, especially in novels. It’s probably the same reason I haven’t read much of classic Russian literature, except for mandatory reads at school.

    But you make a valid point, “it’s good to expand our techniques.” Thanks for the challenge. :)

    1. Thanks, Khaya, for this appreciative comment. It's a good point you raise, too. I find the older I get, the less I want to read harrowing stuff, no matter how well written.

  3. I tend to barf on about concepts that are new to me so I'm trying to internalize them. Stupid, I know. That's why I always note that my notes are optional.
    I write Senryu much more often than Haiku. I honestly didn't know the difference until just a couple of years ago, so I guess it's possible to teach an old and addled dog new tricks. I always identify my Senryu as such.
    You'd probably like me better in person than in writing. In person, I have very little to say. It all comes out when I write, and I guess that's not necessarily a good thing. But since writing is cheaper than therapy, it's not likely to stop anytime soon.

    1. Ha, I recently discovered that there's a whole school of poets now, devoted to the senryu in its own right – which I think is terrific. I like to try new things (or new to me, anyway) and push the boundaries and so on.
      I like you fine in writing! For both your wordcraft and your point of view. And I think it's a very good thing for all of us that 'it all comes out' when we write. I often wonder how people who are not poets manage to cope with life's ups and downs. Writing is not only cheaper than therapy, we can turn to it in any and every situation, to help us deal with any and every emotion. I'm glad you're not going to stop any time soon; me neither.

  4. Thank you, Rosemary, for crafting this very informative post.
    it's interesting what you said about "Realism in art became synonymous with the early days of Communism in Russia". I was not really aware of that. It's the discussions here that help us understand our craft better, the technicalities and the general knowledge.

    1. Thank you; that is my hope. And I do find it all fascinating, so I'm glad if others are interested too.

    2. Thank you, Rosemary, for taking the time for this morning's tutorial on subjective, imagined, realism and naturalism. I'm aware that I tend to "prettify", so I tiptoe around realism lest it be "heavy". (I'm the one who likes to check the end of a book before I guy it, making sure it ends to my satisfactiion". If the hero meets a dreadful demise, I don't want him to rain on my parade!!! I've learned so much from the generous poets on line, and you top the list!!

    3. Excuse typo above. "Guy" should be "buy", of course, and I seem to have lost the closing ). Drives me nuts it's not possible to edit comments!

    4. Awww, thanks for the 'topping the list' remark! xx
      Unlike you, I love surprises, so I NEVER look at the endings of books before I buy (and hate spoilers for shows, too) – but I do read blurbs thoroughly to get a sense of what I'm in for. I'm past the days of liking heavy, myself.

  5. I agree with what you said about traditional haiku, Rosemary, it's one of the reason why I prefer senryū--I enjoy that it allows for mental leaps, dialogue, internal and external commentary, and humor.

    Very cool post.

    1. Thank you. And I hope you read my reply to Ornery Owl re senryu. :)

  6. Thank you for this interesting post. I like real if it is concerned with quotidien events like listening to Purcell whilst chopping onions or hanging out the washing poems. Mine are a mixture of everything . To be honest I don't know what they are...I just write them and am lucky enough to have a few people enjoy them...And no, I wont be writing any Communist poems :)Don't hold me to that:)


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