Emily Urquhart is a journalist with a doctorate in folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her award-winning long-form nonfiction has appeared in Guernica, Longreads and The Walrus among other publications. Her memoir The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, my Father and Me, was listed as a top book of 2020 by CBC, NOW Magazine and Quill & Quire. She is a nonfiction editor for The New Quarterly and lives in Kitchener, Ontario. Her essay collection, Ordinary Wonder Tales, will be published in fall 2022.
What We See In Our Heads When We Read. And, When We Write.
By Emily Urquhart
The titular home in Carmen Maria Machado’s evocative memoir, In The Dream House, appeared in my mind as the red brick townhouse where I lived during my last year at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Later, when I read the essay ‘The First Thanksgiving’ in Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days, it turned out that Patchett also lived in that red brick townhouse, at least, in my imagination. In fact, she slept in my old room! The setting for the first essay in Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am, is a small, unnamed mountain town, but I saw it as Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, the village where I lived while working at a youth hostel for a few months in my early twenties. However, the hike that O’Farrell describes is a mash-up of two trails in Alberta—Tunnel Mountain near Banff and Fairview Lookout at Lake Louise, both paths I’d hiked during a writing residency five years ago. I’ve never been to Seoul, so the protagonist of Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 lived in my old apartment in Vancouver, and, at least one scene took place outside a café in English Bay, except instead of the ocean as a backdrop I saw Regent’s Park in London.
These images weren’t exact or even detailed. They were shades of places I’d known, a collage morphed by memory and added to by imagination. I say ‘added to’ as though it was done with purpose or intent or that I constructed these images as I read, but this is not the case. They appear of their own accord. I have no control over what I see in my head when I read. I don’t know why I switched out the cabin in Machado’s memoir for a red brick townhouse, for example. Or why the same house became the setting for Ann Patchett’s student dorm room. I’d overlaid these spaces with the architecture of my memory; maybe it was something in the shape of the rooms, the way they were lit, the feeling of these places during the time I spent there.
It was while writing my third book, Ordinary Wonder Tales, that I began to consider the theatre of the mind’s eye, and, also, to include it in the stories I wrote. As I re-wrote a classic fairy tale I envisioned the first scene taking place outside a mill that my great uncle once owned in Castleton, Ontario. I included this information in the story. Why not? It was what I was seeing in my head. I was writing non-fiction, and yet, I wondered – is what I envision when I write imaginary? At the same time, couldn’t it also be considered fact? I worked for many years as a fact-checker and I have often had my journalism work fact-checked. Still, I cannot imagine how to enter an author’s mind—or daydream?—and check on the veracity of the images that exist there.
I sent a text to two writer friends and asked what they saw in their heads when writing fiction. I wondered if their imagined worlds were based on real or invented landscapes. Tasneem Jamal, author of Where the Air is Sweet, says, “I absolutely see places when I write fiction. I suppose it’s like a movie in my head, or a memory.” Carrie Snyder, author of Francie’s Got a Gun, says she sees real places, or, at least they seem real to her. And yet, some are necessarily imagined: “All the ship scenes I’ve written must not be real because I’ve never been on a big ship.” She writes that the experience of place is immersive and real when writing: “It’s like I’m actually there… somewhere else.” Tasneem agreed, adding that it can be “jarring to be snapped out of it.”
How closely do these scenes align with what people see in their minds when reading Carrie or Tasneem’s work? I wonder, if I were to give Ann Patchett or Carmen Maria Machado a tour of my former student home in Kingston, Ontario, would these authors understand why I imagined their spaces to look like mine? Or would they be bewildered? If I showed Cho Nam-Joo the Vancouver apartment that was the stand-in for her character’s Korean apartment, would there be any hints of sameness? My hunch is that there would be an essence of familiarity because the author has suggested the visual components and offered descriptions that have gently guided my subconscious. In other words, I’ve received directions.
In her translator’s note at the beginning of Brenda Lozano’s Witches, Heather Cleary writes that she has intentionally kept some words in the original Spanish because translating them into English would misshape some aspects of the narrative—conjure a midwestern corn field instead of the intended milpa, derived from the Nahuatl, which is an agrarian parcel of land where several crops are grown symbiotically, but also an important cultural philosophy. What did I conjure? Not exactly the corn fields of my youth in Southwestern Ontario; something more akin to the steppe farms of the Mediterranean. Is this a good approximation? I’m not sure. I’ve never been to Mexico.
And, yet, in my mind’s eye, I have.