“Classic” Post: June 2003–The Imagination

We’re going to away to teach at Clarion and then some R&R. So, while I’m gone I’ll be posting a few posts from the old blog….

THE IMAGINATION

Carolyn Bly has a great book on writing called The Passionate, Accurate Story. Bly may not be known to many people, but she’s one of those writers in the literary mainstream, publishing mostly in literary magazines, who hasn’t had a novel out, just a series of some of the most beautiful short stories you could have the pleasure of reading. Her advice in her writing book is timeless.

Part of the book deals with the imagination, and specifically a sense of play in the imagination. It is her observation as a creative writing instructor that students often come to her with stunted or crippled imaginations. It’s difficult for her to draw such students out into the kind of “play” that results in good writing. You can learn all of the technique in the world, but without an advanced sense of play, it may go for naught.

She gives an example. A family is sitting around a dinner table the day that new neighbors have moved in next door. The father or mother asks their child, Have you met the new neighbors yet? The child says, Yes–it’s a family of bears! The child’s engaging in a real sense of play–a kind of enjoyment that is both intellectual and emotional. Something that’s fun–in a sense, the child is telling a story. How the parents react, consistently, can affect whether the child grows up with a good or stunted imagination. If the parents respond with, That’s nonsense, tell us the truth–and reinforce that lesson over and over again, then chances are the child will grow up thinking that such joyful make believe is wrong, or at best frivolous, as opposed to being central to the pursuit of a healthy imagination as adult. If, on the other hand, the parents say, That’s great! How many cubs do the parent bears have? Or in some sense continue to support the imaginative impulse in the child, then they tell a story together, and the child learns the value of a good imagination. Which is its own reward, but also helps in the creative arts later on.

This sense of play is highly underrated–we are often expected to do things or say things for solely utilitarian reasons. To do so, however, undermines one of the things that makes us human. That same sense of play, that sense of transforming the world into a place that is not just the surface we see but something underlying that surface–which begins to get at the idea that the world truly is a strange, beautiful, and complex thing–is something that makes us fully adult, fully human, and, in a sense, fully humane.

Have you ever had the sense that even though you’re in your twenties or thirties or forties that you haven’t fully grown up? That you’re not that far removed from the child or teenager you were? The reason for this is that we’re not that different. We add a veneer of adulthood, we take on responsibilities that force us to seem more adult. But at heart, we’re not that different than we were back then. In a way we should be grateful, especially if we want to be creative people, because children, for all their indifference to things we adults find important, are much more likely to see the world without the myopia of cliche or the shroud of received experience. That part of being a child–of experiencing things for the first time, of not putting so much of a filter between ourselves and world–is something we should strive to keep in our daily lives. And the imagination is a big part of that.

Comments

  1. says

    Astoundingly good post. A sense of play, I’ve never heard that said before. Mostly it’s the ‘write what you know’, or ‘stories are all around you’ type of advice.

  2. says

    I love that bear-family example–it’s so true both from a writing (and other creative stuff) standpoint and from what I’ve seen working with kids. Play–that’s what I’ve always loved about Calvino. I remember you had this same example in the intro to the Year’s Best Fantasy antho, or at least one version of the intro. Is it still in the final version?