Imagination and The Operating Instructions

It’s always good to find someone who practises what she preaches, and even better when that someone is a writer. In this case, it’s Ursula K Le Guin, who writes about writing as well as having given readers some of the most imaginative fiction there is. She combines story and thoughtfulness in ways that enthral children as well as adults. And her key word is imagination. What is it? Why is it so important?

What on Earth is Imagination?

Of course, on earth is where Ursula Le Guin’s imagination does not leave us. She takes us to other planets, other times, other cultures and shows us that our world could be other, different, we could make it better. And this difference depends on our imaginations – her imagination as a writer, and ours as readers (and writers).

The word ‘imagination’ is often used interchangeably with ‘creativity’ she notes in The Operating Instructions, her talk in 2002 to a meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts. But it is worth considering why we have two words, and why one might serve writers better.

Businesses and many organisations like the word creativity because it sounds as if it leads to outcomes: there will be creations. As Ursula Le Guin says

In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. (3)

But imagination is not a means of making money. Imagination is a bigger concept than creativity. In her words imagination is ‘a tool of the mind’, the most useful tool we have.

Why is imagination so important?

People we respect make a great deal of imagination.

Albert Einstein: Logic will get you from A to Z. Imagination will get you everywhere. (Twitter meme)

Ada Lovelace: Imagination is the Discovering facility, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live. (From her letters, quoted by Maria Popova)

Ursula Le Guin: I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination. (3)

John Lennon: Imagine.

Ada Lovelace suggested imagination was made of the ability to combine things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new and endlessly variable combinations. And being able to conceive of things that can’t be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted – those things that do not ‘exist within our physical & conscious cognizance’. And for Ada Lovelace it was the mathematical sciences, the language of the unseen relations between things that required imagination. She saw imagination as essential to pushing the boundaries of mathematics, and within months she wrote the paper on computer science in 1843 that opened the way for computer programming.

The connection to literacy

Speaking to the meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts, Ursula Le Guin made the strong connection between imagination, literacy, words, cultural stories and hope for the world. I find her short piece inspiring. I immediately want to take imagination for a walk.

She suggests that we need to learn to use the ‘tool of the mind’. This is an important idea for our school curriculum, and for supporting human development.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

Literacy, the capacity to use words is central to this learning about and to use imagination.

We are a wordy species … Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. (4)

Stories are the ways that cultures define themselves and teach their children how to be people and members of their people. She has explored these ideas in the fantasy novels, the Earthsea Trilogy. I recommend these for an imaginative quest for the significance of words and naming by a novice wizard as he journeys towards maturity and wisdom.

The stories of our culture, she says in the talk, provide us with a home. And therein lies the importance of reading and the understanding that using imagination is a community activity:

Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. (6)

My great-grandfather referred to reading as half an hour’s conversation with a writer.

At the opening of her talk, Ursula Le Guin had referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends with a revision of this view.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6)

So …?

We must never stop using our imaginations. We must never stop training ourselves and younger generations in the skills of imagination. We must feed it with words and stories, with connections beyond our ‘physical & conscious cognizance’, with joy and those of us who write must follow the example of Ursula Le Guin.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

See also my recent review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, for the Decades Project.

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2 Comments

Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Reading, Writing

2 Responses to Imagination and The Operating Instructions

  1. Thanks, Caroline. I totally agree with you on the importance of developing imagination in children. You’ve included some great quotes here, and some books I must check out. Thank you.

    • Caroline

      Hi Norah. I need to think about this, but I think young children don’t need much encouragement to use their imaginations. But it can quickly get squashed by wishing to please, to do things right etc etc.
      Hope you are well.
      Caroline

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