There are many reasons to admire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, not least her novels, such as Americanah, but also her stance on feminism, We Should All Be Feminists. Recently I read this from her:
Imagination doesn’t fall from the sky. You have to work with something.
[quoted in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On How to Read and How to Write, in Lit Hub 15th Sept 2017, from interview with Salon]
And as I have been thinking about imagination and writing since I wrote about it earlier this year I began to think about the ways in which I find those ‘somethings’. These might be ideas for this blog, or for my creative writing activities, or for non-fiction work.
And I love the idea that the word inspiration is linked to breathe, we should breath as naturally as we take in air to our lungs. And that the word imagination links with the visual stimuli, having the same root as images.
The central question is What if …?
Writers need to ask ‘what if …?’ again and again. Most frequently it is what if I lived in a world that was different from mine in some significant way?
- What if dragons were real and living close by?
- What if Mr Rochester already had a wife?
- What if Mr Darcy had no money and a modest nature?
- What if the ugly duckling were just an ugly duckling?
- What if women had all the power?
- What if I wrote the story backwards?
- What if I made the characters into animals?
- Imagine …
There are so many ways of asking this question. Pantsers are especially good at creating wild and elaborate plots. I have just read Swing Time by Zadie Smith, and the world she conjures seems to want to escape the 450 pages of the novel.
Ursula le Guin is justly renown for creating worlds that contrast with ours but also reflect aspects of our own. In The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, she asks what if gender difference was periodic and inconstant? Writers can suspend normal rules and see what happens, as in Orlando by Virginia Woolf, in which the protagonist lives for centuries and changes gender. Or writers can create a book to be read in one order or another depending on which copy is bought, as in Ali Smith’s How to be Both.
That’s the beauty of writing and reading fiction. It takes you to places you might not have yet imagined. And so it can be very subversive.
Finding sources for imagination
It is apparently one of the most common questions that published writers get asked – where do you get your ideas? Some writing groups I have tried focused exclusively on prompts. But having had an active imagination since I could speak, I am practised in using my imgaination. Here’s what I do:
- use prompts
In each of these ways there are a myriad of sources in which imagination can be piqued. Writing in the style of, or paraphrasing a noted writer’s text are ways in which imagination can become unblocked. Noticing, noting the world around us: on the bus, in the news. I wrote a story called The Welcoming Committee after a prompt from a writers’ groups and found I was asking what would have happen if a group of English people had met American soldiers in the Second World War. The prompt was too many cooks.
Writer’s Treats are a great way to help see the world anew or even differently. I favour art galleries and opera. It helps me think about how other people see the world. Some time ago I described how I Write One Picture – a strategy to practise writing. The source of this idea was a project for primary schools. I wrote a short story, called Paintpot, about a war artist who witnessed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, inspired by a drawing I saw in an exhibition. What if I had been present at that dreadful scene?
I have been lucky to travel for professional as well as personal reasons, and in 2009 I wrote a story about Roaring Billy Falls in New Zealand. It was about the restorative power of landscape, but I think the title was its best feature.
Recently I have been working on a short story about a Conscientious Objector in the first world war. Here are the gates to his work camp.
Training the Imagination
Ursula Le Guin’s suggestion in The Operating Instructions that we need to help people learn to use imagination bears repeating.
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)
To learn to use imagination well there are many things I do:
- Practice using it – all the above activities
- Review the effects of these activities and their outcomes
- Learn from the exercises
- Consider how to put the learning into effect in my own writing, or not.
- Collaborate with others in imaginative activities.
And in writing as in other art forms there is no limit. No limit. We can use our imaginations to take us anywhere, everywhere.
Over to you
And what do you do to keep your imagination topped up? To find those somethings?
I wrote on the topic of imagination three months ago: inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s essay The Operating Instructions, which you can find in Words are my Matter.
Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016.
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