Imagination is a precious thing…

Last night, my wife and I walked miles around the environs of this fair city of Milton Keynes, just to find somewhere dark enough for us to catch a glimpse or two of the annual Perseid meteor shower (in the event, we only spotted two… but hey, there’s always next year). Along the way, Liz and I started talking about children’s imaginations, a topic specifically prompted by both of us wanting to know how we saw things when we were younger, and the way we imagined we would be when we were grown up. You know the kind of thing: working in a chocolate factory so that you can make a creme egg as large as a house so you can dive in and swim about in it, or growing up to be a princess so you have pretty clothes and a bejewelled tiara and ride about on a pony all day. Or, as one other example that Liz told me about, filling the downstairs with water so you can swim up the stairs rather than using your legs. And when you’re that young, it all makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

The conversation got me thinking. I had just finished reviewing Cate Gardner‘s superb Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things (due from Strange Publications on October 14th this year – the review appears in Beyond Fiction) and one of the enchanting aspects of Cate’s writing is its childlike quality. That’s not to say it is in any way childish, because it’s definitely nothing of the sort. Rather, a kind of flawless logic pertains within the confines of the stories she writes that, were it to happen in the real world, only a child would feel unthreatened by the lack of sense.

And, I guess, that’s the reason why these stories work so well: as adults, their very nonsensicality appears to be slightly threatening, because of their very unpredictability. Although we are aware when we read them that something weird is about to happen and we think that we are prepared for it, when it does happen it’s still something of a jolt. Simply because it doesn’t happen like that. That’s where Gardner’s stories derive their power.

It’s also another reason why we should treasure the imaginative powers of children’s minds. Because they have less knowledge of the world and the way it works, leaps of logic are a matter of course. We may think of the sky being blue because that’s how photons are scattered by the atmosphere, but the child, not being privy to this, might think that because the sea is blue then the sky is the upstairs water and is where all the rain is stored. Makes absolutely perfect sense.

That wonder slowly evaporates as we grow up and we learn that the world isn’t as plastic and fluid as we once comfortably thought. However, that doesn’t mean that we should fetter our imaginations as we enter the adult world. While we may have to act sensibly in our everyday lives and be ‘grown-up’, giving up our sense of wonder blunts our relationship with the world around us, which, to me, is tantamount to handing over your soul. Even without the wizards and elves, or without the vast spaceports we read about as young children or created in our minds, there is still plenty out there to inspire us – natural beauty, art, science, books, the universe itself.

That’s why, as writers, we should open our eyes (and ears) to the whole of life, as there is potential inspiration everywhere around us. The chance overheard out-of-context remark, the colour or shape of a flower, an abandoned vehicle, a derelict house, a piece of incongruous clothing left on a wall or a discarded toy, a line in a story, a newspaper article – these are all sources of inspiration, setting off creative sparks that grow brighter and brighter as more ideas bifurcate from the original line of thought. Try to see everything around you from a different angle, or in a different light. Why is that child’s glove sat where it is? Was it accidentally dropped, or does it signify something else? Something strange and mysterious, or maybe something dark and sinister?

This is how all great fiction starts – I’ve often read about how a writer was doing a mundane activity, or went for a walk somewhere familiar and saw something unusual, which ignited a whole series of creative mini-explosions in his/her head. They metaphorically turned the image/idea over to see what it looked like from underneath, or looked at it sideways. Or even took off in a completely random direction, generating a totally unexpected line of thinking and surprising even the writer him/herself.

That’s how plots for the best stories and novels often start, and it’s why some writers rise to the top and others just kind of float. It’s because they’ve taken things that everyone takes for granted and twisted them in some way, or just looked at it from a new perspective. As writers, we all need to develop this facility if we can – not all are able to, but we should at least give it a damn good try. If nothing else, it’s a hell of a fun exercise in itself.  And, who knows, YOU just may hit upon that magically imaginative idea that elevates you to the big-time.

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4 Responses to “Imagination is a precious thing…”

  1. Andrew Murray Says:

    excellent essay & quite true. Stephen King described this as “when my muse shat itself on me” hehe & the classic ‘what if?’ question should be constantly asked. re your lastest books blog: MR James is to be a new experience??? tak tsk 🙂

    • Re: MR James…. yes, I know… I’m a bit slow on the uptake – a habit that I have unfortunately dragged with me throughout life… I intend to reactify that though from now on…. 😀

      “What if?” are THE two most important words for a writer in my opinion… and it’s produced some amazing literatuire over the years, hasn’t it?

  2. So I shouldn’t listen to people when they tell me ‘to grow up’. Noted.

    • LOL – no you shouldn’t…. otherwise we wouldn’t have books like “Strange Men…” to entertain us…

      (I now look at anybody in a pinstripe suit with a modicum of suspicion…. )

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