Imagination gets a bum rap.

The stuff of childhood play, imagination is often miscategorized as childish.  Ideas imagined are often mislabeled unreal or false.

Most of us go through a point in our growing-up years when we think it necessary to "put away childish things" including our imaginations and our imaginary friends.


I submit to you that imagination is key to creating meaning in our lives.

Does that mean that all meaning is illusion?  I suppose you could go there. I don't.  I think imagination is the root of all knowledge, the foundation for understanding everything truly important.

Before scientists can test a theory, they must imagine it. Before engineers can design complicated structures, they must imagine them. Some physicists would even argue that possibilities for reality are infinite until we observe and define---and how do we define anything without first imagining that meaning?

And yet, for all its importance, how many of us exercise our imaginations? When we really, absolutely, for-sure need to think differently and come up with answers to complicated problems, how many of us will be able to imagine those answers?

For writers, imagination is essential.

Great Aunt Marge might pat you on the head and take this to mean that you're so cute, writing your little stories and avoiding the real world. (In short, she treats you as a child because she sees imagination as the stuff of childhood.)

Great Aunt Marge is wrong.

Imagination is the most serious aspect of childhood. Through playing, kids define their identities and the shape of their communities. They see themselves as superheros or explorers or spies. They picture themselves in families or without families. They contemplate birth and death and marriage and divorce. In the worst situations, they come up with understandings both inspiring and frightening. In the best situations, they come up with understandings both inspiring and frightening. In play, they find the meaning of life. That meaning serves as the foundation for everything that comes after.

As writers, we're not just jotting down stories. We're exploring those primitive building blocks of imagination to create meaning.  We may approach our writing in the spirit of playfulness, but we're creating something profound.

One of my favorite parts of writing is getting to that point when my characters start editorializing my decisions. My hero might turn toward me and say, "Are you crazy? I'd never do that."  Or all the characters might gang up on me and insist on taking Path B when all along I planned for them to take Path A.  Or, my absolute favorite thing is when a brand new character wanders onto the page, refuses to leave, and steals the scene.

And this is where people get all mystical about the writing process, even though the experience isn't all that uncommon.  The stray character shows up and, against our better judgement, we let him stay. We don't know why. We just write the scene with him in it and then we move on.  Then, in the closing of the book, that character suddenly becomes critical to EVERYTHING. And we sit there, scene written, and we ask, "how did that happen?"

I don't know.  But then, I don't really understand how my heart beats either. That's pretty weird. And respiration?  Totally cool.

The difference, of course, is that we breathe all the time. Our heart goes all aflutter at the touch of a lover or calms in the presence of a waterfall. We're accustomed to some miracles more than others.

Imagination? Especially when we've put it away with childhood and it makes a startling return?  Imagination shakes us to the core.  It wows us.

I corrected my son the other day.  He wanted to watch television and we settled into our usual discussion.  This day his argument for expanding his screen time was, "but I was only playing anyway."  I told him play was important---essential even.

"But I do it all the time," he answered.

"But if you stop playing, you'll forget how to play."

He stared at me, wide-eyed.  "Seriously?"

"Adults forget all the time."

"But you use your imagination every day," he argued.  "You wouldn't be able to write without it."

"Yes. I had to train myself by writing every day. It didn't come back to me easily."

I didn't realize my younger daughter was listening. She squeezed between us and gave me a big hug, her eyes so sad.  "I'm sorry you lost your imagination," she said. Then she put hands on both my cheeks and nodded.  "I'm just glad it's back."

My son went off to play, my daughter joined him, and I sat in wonder.

Yes. I can find my way back to the very real world of my imagination, but I wish I'd kept the path open all along.


  1. This post rings so true to me! After spending the morning clattering away at my keyboard, a character that I had never thought of revealed herself to me - obvious and essential as the woodwork in my setting. It was a wonderful feeling. I've let her run through the following scenes, and she seems most at home.

    The imagination sure is a spectacular thing, I don't know where I'd be without it!

  2. So beautiful, may the imagination live on.

  3. Loved this, Johanna. And the part about the characters waylaying your plans? Yeah, they're annoying, but I never ignore them. After all, they know best.

  4. Great. Post. Favorite line:

    "In the worst situations, they come up with understandings both inspiring and frightening. In the best situations, they come up with understandings both inspiring and frightening."

    Yup, that pretty well sums up childhood imagination I think.

    And I love the exchange between you and the kiddos.

    How often, I wonder, do we miss the common being the profound? Pretty Damned often, I'd guess.

    Thanks for this, Johanna

  5. I swear this blog keeps me in the imagination game . . . just when I am too xxxx (insert sad, angry, busy, tired - you name it) one of the very talented GSW gang inspires. Thanks for this Johanna - and I LOVE the picture.

  6. Yes Johanna, those magical childhood pathways can close so quickly if we do not guard them, keep them clear of the debris of adult needs and responsibilities, or remove the bolders that fall in our way from the adult chores. There is something special about remembering the child in each of us, that wide-eyed kid who believed in fairy tales and wished upon a star. Your children will guide you through the rest of your journey and together you can play and create wonderful memories :)

  7. Wonderful post Johanna. Life would be pretty awful without imagination.

  8. This post is so true.
    I loved what you told your son. (wise mom)

    Imagination is so often stifled, without any one even thinking about what is happening. Society has shifted from kids (and adults) out playing and creating their own activities, to sitting in front of the TV,playing video games, texting, and wearing head phones where ever they go listening to music someone else makes. The brain is overloaded with outside influences, leaving little room to develop imagination.

    I also enjoyed your thoughts about characters editorializing your decisions. How many times have I thought "you can't do that" but no matter what I try to do, the story does not flow until I let them develop on their own. In my imagination these people become so real to me they are like my friends, sometimes my kids. I love it!

    Thank you for sharing you wisdom!
    I love this site!


  9. Your conversation with your son was so touching, Johanna. Your daughter's contribution brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful last line! I lost the path to my imagination via a hiatus from writing for fifteen years. It was such a difficult path back. Now that I'm here, I'm here to stay. My children are adults. May they embrace this lesson as well.

    Thank you for this bright and wise post, Johanna.

    Take care,

  10. SO WONDERFUL! You went right to the heart of it and expressed everything I've tried to tell people about why I write. Why I HAD to write in the depths of a soul-numbing job. Why I write at least a little every day. And I love the part about the characters taking over. When I tell non-writers about this, they look at me like I'm delusional, but that's exactly what happens.

  11. It was just my imagination...running away with me, is a line from an old song. The man had created an entire world with a woman he didn't even know. I loved that song's beautiful. Our imaginations are a wonder. Thank you for reminding us of that fact.

  12. Fish out of water stories are my favorite, so I loved the co-op story. It really got my imagination spinning. What made him go in there in the first place? What is he buying there that he can't get anywhere else? Or did the woman make him go? Can I stretch this to a full length novel? Maybe not, but a short story might work. Thanks for another great post :) Happy Thanksgiving.

  13. Those new characters are so amazing. I'm glad you let yours stay!

  14. Thank you Zehra. You're such a blessing to me.

  15. So true. And even if I do ignore them, they always come back! :)

  16. Yes. I know we see more of the profound things in life when we spend time in stillness but, even then, we miss more than we see.

  17. Thanks, Liz. I find treasures in the thrift store and many of them come away as pictures or bits of dialog.

  18. I still remember putting away my dolls. I thought it was time, that I was being too childish. I so wish I'd kept them out.

  19. Good point, Gloria. So many things slip away from us while we're not paying attention.

  20. Thank you, Jess. And as my daughter said to me, "I'm just glad it's back." Your stories are wonderful.

  21. Thank you, Angela! And hey, maybe we are delusional, but isn't it wonderful? :D

  22. Yes--such a wonder. Thanks for sharing about the song. I need to look for it now!

  23. I love reading your blog posts Johanna. Thanks again.

  24. No doubt about it, that's a pretty great kid ya got there.

    My favorite line is "Imagination shakes us to the core. It wows us."

    That's the bestest and scariest part, innit?

    Thanks for this, Johanna

  25. p.s. - love the photo.

  26. Bestest and scariest--you got that right. :)

    And the photo? Ah, thrift stores. Inspiring places.

  27. I'm with John on that one.

    I also lost my way to my imagination for years, having put it away for more "serious endeavors." I also found the path back but you're so right: I wish I'd never lost it in the first place. Still, now we have it again and we are writing.

    "Imagination shakes us to the core. It wows us." Truer words were never written. Thank you for this, Johanna. As always, you drive to the heart of the matter in the most gracious of manners.

    Take care,

  28. "For writers, imagination is essential."

    I agree, and I think for *humans* imagination is essential. We need to make sense of the world around us and sometimes we have to rewrite bits of it so we can fit our own worldview inside the story sloshing around us.

    Plus there's lots of ways we can use our imagination just for fun. For example I like to add that I was wearing a cape and kickass boots to any story I tell about a trip to the grocery store. It's more fun, and imaginary boots don't leave blisters.

    Loved this piece johanna.

    Karen :0)

  29. [...] post was first published on Gem State Writers on November 23, 2011. Share this:EmailPrintDiggFacebookStumbleUpon Previous post [...]


Post a Comment

Popular Posts