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Imagination Is a Muscle

February 1, 2013

imagination postFor a long time, I’ve lamented that our culture doesn’t accept imagination as a healthy part of adulthood. The overemphasis on Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, in fact, are proof that we seem to think imagination dies in childhood, that when you grow up, you have to be practical. Follow the rules, color inside the lines, and maybe you’ll live a satisfactory life.

Even teaching young and older adults as an English professor, I could tell that there was a different vibe in the classroom when I introduced something as “a true story”—memoir, essay—and when something was fiction. Men, in particular, thought there was a lot more validity to the true story, because it really happened. (If I were to get theoretical on your ass, I’d say women are more inclined toward fiction because so much of women’s vibrant history is in the dark, and only through imagination can we bring it back to life.) So many of us have been taught to believe that you can only learn from real events, not from the hard work of creation. And too many people—including Oprah—overlook the narrative qualities of our “real events,” that in memory, fiction and nonfiction have a lot of overlap.

I find using my imagination a cleansing experience. It’s why I consider fiction such a high art. Not only is fiction—or all art, for that matter—an expression of our deepest selves, but it’s also a reflection of the divine within us. Sometimes we can use escape as a path to return.

At the end of December, I read Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow (about the three most basic prayers) and interviewed her for the magazine where I work. One of the things I like about this book in particular is her emphasis on the connection of imagination and spirituality. We don’t hear about this much, but it makes sense. If we’re going to believe in God, we have to have imagination. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the good in people, and you have to, you know, imagine it. John Lennon wasn’t wrong.

The reason writing and thinking about fiction nourishes me so much is because it allows me to flex that muscle. When I started writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month last November, I started to see it as a practice of journeying outside of myself as a way to get closer to something meaningful. (If you want to know, I didn’t finish the novel that month, but I’m not beating myself up about it. How many  full-time working moms do you know that can write 55,000 words in one month? So I’m still working.) Instead of focusing on the end result (publication, applause, grandeur), I’m just enjoying wandering from page to page, room to room, as though I’m on a ride at an amusement park. I don’t need to write for any other purpose than that.

Imagination is a muscle that, when flexed, helps us empathize with what another person may be going through. It allows us to see a different perspective and even, sometimes, plan ahead. It allows us to foresee consequences, both good and bad. And for all those reasons, it should continue to be lauded in every educational institution, whether students plan to be doctors or businesswomen.

Lately, I’ve been making up stories with my daughter before she goes to bed. There are two characters, Elizabeth and Stripes, her dog. Mostly, all Elizabeth and her dog do is play in the snow and go for walks and eat a meal and sleep. Stripes really likes to sleep (as should all children’s storybook heros). Sometimes, I tell myself I’m going to make the story short, but then I end up getting carried away, the same as when I try to limit my writing time. Whether or not Elizabeth and Stripes eventually go into print doesn’t matter. I’m creating a memory with my daughter,  and in the moment, it doesn’t get much more fun than talking about our characters and imagining their world.

That’s the thing about stories. Anything is possible. Remembering that fact helps lifts our spirits. It reminds us of the beauty in our lives that we often forget. It is a religious experience.


Image: “天壇天公廟” by sacula225 via Flickr. (I’m imagining what that title means.)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsey February 1, 2013 at 8:09 am

Absolutely adore the idea of imagination as a muscle, one that atrophies in traditional adulthood. Love. Also, really appreciated your interview with Anne Lamott (and loved Help, Thanks, Wow). Thank you! xox


Heather Caliri February 1, 2013 at 9:01 am

Love, love love the interview. Very perceptive and interesting questions, Jana. Thank you so much for sharing it here.


frogmama February 10, 2013 at 8:23 pm

As always, excellent and thoughtful post (interview too). Anne Lamott is one of my all-time favorite authors. I read Operating Instructions when I first had my son. And tonight I told him that tomorrow, even though there is no school, we are going to exercise his brain with some math and reading anyway (and he actually seemed to like the idea). We’ll see how we fare in the morning…


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