The Plight of the Unimaginative Writer Living in the Age of the Internet

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Editor's Note:

Rebecca Harrington is the author of the novels Sociable and Penelope and the comic essay collection I’ll Have What She’s Having. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, The New York Times, Elle, NPR.com, and other publications. She lives in New York City. Here, she makes the case for why things have never been worse for unimaginative writers.


I have long thought there were two kinds of writers in this world. Ones that had imagination and ones that did not. The imaginative ones are a bit like wizards. They create whole worlds out of cloth, with heroic, brilliant characters who capture your heart. The unimaginative ones don’t do that. I am firmly in the latter camp.

This is not to say that unimaginative writers are bad. Obviously, I don’t think I’m BAD per se, but unimaginative writers such as myself have to situate themselves in the world as it really is, because they can’t really think of anything else. Like, I actually COULDN’T think up an alternative reality even if I tried extremely hard. I also can’t invent handsomer better people than actually exist in real life. This instantly makes my characters less heroic and less prone to commit murder.

I would actually hazard a guess that things have never been worse for unimaginative writers. Technology has been very hard on us. If you are unimaginative, the cell phone, social media, and friendfinder take almost all excitement out of your work. Before, there could be missed connections, letters that got lost, phones that droned on and on unanswered. These were real things that caused drama in life! Another great thing was that you had to meet people in person to have emotional conversations, which is a very effective way for an unimaginative writer to make her novel suspenseful.

But now? If you really want to be realistic, everyone knows where everyone is all the time, very few things are really private, and most people are sitting and scrolling through their phones. These are not suspenseful scenes for the reader! Even Jane Austen, the patron saint and public face of unimaginative fiction, had secret marriages and letters that never reached their audiences. What would Jane Austen do now? Just write about curates giving boring sermons?

So what is the unimaginative writer to do in this new reality, if they want to reflect it accurately? In my new novel Sociable, I tried to find the same suspense and tension in social media that there is in real life, and it led me to some interesting and confusing places. My heroine, Elinor, writes a confessional essay about her breakup that goes viral and lands her on local television. If Elinor were a character in a Jane Austen novel, this emotional outpouring would have happened in conversation—preferably in front of a harpsichord.

What is the difference between the personal essay and the in-person emotional discussion? Obviously, there is one—but story wise, the function is the same. And yet, Elinor sharing her breakup with tens of thousands of people changes the psychological process, and I wanted to explore that. If you are always performing for an unseen audience, do you unintentionally flatten your utterances and rely on cliché so as not to put yourself out there? Where does the difference between your individual thought and the thoughts of everyone else truly lie? How much does social media’s very emotionality divorce you from the organic way you process your emotions? How does sharing a version of yourself with everyone change the way you think of yourself and what you deserve?

These are thorny questions, and while I admit to sometimes wishing I was blessed with more of an imagination so as to never have had to answer them, it’s been an intriguing and sometimes hilarious process to come up with something that accurately reflects the modern world as I see it. Hopefully, I’ll set my next book in my memory of 2007, so I will never have to deal with this again!