A few years ago, at one of those A-list parties where I was surrounded by some of those “famous” authors whose books are on all our shelves, I was working on an assignment to write a column for a magazine. The topic was “IMAGINATION,” so I asked several of the authors what came to mind when I said “imagination.” You’d think I’d said a dirty word. Some were silent. Some pondered as though I’d asked a trick question. A few offered uncertain answers, suggesting the realm of fancy and fantasy, or something dark or New Age. Not one responded as I’d expected, shrugging their shoulders and stating the obvious. “Imagination? Heck, we’re writers. Imagination is our principal tool.”
Recently, I tried the same question with some of my Facebook friends and got some great responses. Among them:
Albert Einstein’s quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” PJ Schott
A person, attached to a bunch of multi-colored balloons that are pulling her up into the bright blue sky. Vicki Lane
When my son was small, we took him to NASA. He played and played on all the science stuff and adored it all. When we finally dragged him out to the car and began to buckle him into his car seat, he told me, “Mommy, I think I’ll take a nap now. My imagination is tired.” Julie Wray Herman
It’s actually kind of a loaded word for me because when I was a kid I was always told I had a “wild imagination” and that I was too much of a dreamer. But now imagination means my private world populated by all the fascinating characters who want to be in my stories. Kathleen Valentine
Lots of company in my head. And the ability to scare myself sh*tless. Edith Maxwell
Fun, to play with images and words. Being able to create my own images to go with the writer’s words. The ability to create stories that make others feel what I want them to feel. Nancy Myer
Ursula K. LeGuin’s sentence: “Imagine darkness.” The first sentence and paragraph of CITY OF ILLUSION. Tom Carollo
Imagine. That’s what the writers here do. Every day. All the time. Sometimes we’re scared sh*tless. Sometimes our ideas soar like balloons, lifting us up into the bright blue sky. Sometimes our imaginations do run wild and have to be reined in; other times, like horses that need to be given their heads, we need to set them free to wander where our more cautious natures might not go, because we’re following characters who are not us, who may be braver, wickeder or more willful and headstrong than ourselves. Characters we’ve imagined into life but who are often radically different from us. Characters who, if we’ve imagined them fully and well, may even begin to do things we didn’t plan for them to do.
As we watch our characters handle the situations we’ve put them in, we’re imagining their thoughts and feelings. How will they handle conflict? Discouragement? Relationships gone wrong? How will they react when we put them into situations that are so scary they make it hard for us to breathe? How will they master new knowledge, unsettling knowledge, someone’s refusal to disclose critical information, or receiving knowledge that doesn’t fit what they know? How will we master new knowledge so we can give it to them and then let it seem organic to who they are?
A student of mine at Grub Street, a few years ago, listened to a fellow student read her piece and then said, “It’s great. And I can see how you want me to feel. Now, make me feel it.” A challenge for his fellow student, and challenge for all us writers every day. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, says that what a writer does is put his dream in the reader’s head. For us to do that well, we have to imagine our places, our characters, and our characters’ emotions well enough so that when we write them, you will feel them. It’s always a challenge.
And of course, because of what we write, whether we write traditional mysteries, historicals, serial killers, police procedurals with rookie cops or seasoned veterans, the challenges of wayward plumbing, the dangers of selling real estate, what it’s like to be a warden alone in facing down bad guys in the Maine woods, a female police chief, or even when we’re writing true crime, we’re writing about the evil that men (and women do) and we are forced to imagine darkness.
Until our imaginations get tired and we need to rest.