Although responsible for most of humanity’s greatest ideas, the imagination can actually be one of the most destructive forces in a writer if left unchecked. C’est de la merde, you suggest? Mais, c’est vrai.
Consider the following case study: a tender young writer—lost in grad school limbo—is forced to choose between writing another piece of her amorphous dissertation, arguing with her alcoholic partner who last spoke to her three days ago, or sitting at her desk soaked in an endorphin rush and letting her imagination run wild about the fabulously hot New Zealander who began guest lecturing on fuzzy logic in her artificial intelligence class (1). Which option do you think she will choose?
And, having once chosen a juicy imaginary tryst over the grittier reality of the dissertation, what’s to prevent her from choosing it over and over again unless her situation as a whole changes? Flash forward several weeks: the daydreams have become less titillating and the hottie professor with his even hottier girlfriend have gone on an extended hottie sabbatical together. The result: our little writer is utterly dejected. And, when she casts a more critical eye toward her work habits and realizes that she has been left with nary a page to show for her imaginative wanderings, she reaches for the Prozac. Sound familiar?
Of course, you may cavil that it’s completely unfair of me to suggest that the writer’s bout of depression is her fault. But it did feel a bit like déjà vu, right? You may also cavil that it’s totally stupid of me to equate “sexual daydreams” with “the imagination” since the imagination has, after all, bequeathed us such great works as Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” the pyramids at Giza, and, more recently, The Hangover (2). However, I would retort that most people’s imaginative prowess falls far short of that of a Blake or a Goethe and, instead, more closely resembles their cousin Dougie from West Virginia, who often shows up to the party uninvited and with two fewer teeth than last time.
Why? Because instead of letting the imagination have free roam, most people try to push it in a closet and repress it. Again, why? Fear. Fear of what it might show them about themselves–i.e. that they really are a West Virginia hick–or where it might lead them–straight to a place that specializes in applying egg to the face.
At heart, I think we all intuitively sense that the imagination is a deeply universal and impersonal force that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the people it uses to channel its vision. Indeed, the imagination only cares about expressing itself. And it can be a rough, albeit totally interesting, ride for those who willingly choose to become its fountain pens. So, while we can certainly gush over Coleridge’s cushy gig with respect to the imagination—after all, he got to smoke opium, hang around really cool people, and write one of the most famous poems of all time—most of us worry that, when the imagination calls, it will ask us to trade in our Honda Civic to go live with a fat hippie on a pot farm in Marin County where we will get arrested within six months and never manage to publish a word.
Don’t get me wrong: we all have an infinite capacity to experience the imagination. However, most of us just choose to use it so that we stay stuck at the Judge Judy level of life rather than becoming the next Nabokov or Picasso. Personally, I know I have clocked countless hours flirting with Jon Stewart over my imaginary bestseller, making an imaginary guest appearance on Oprah’s now-defunct Book Club, and building a dream house on the Sonoma Coast with all my imaginary royalties instead of putting all that imaginative energy to use penning my brilliant TV series (3).
And these fanciful meanderings don’t even include the time I’ve wasted indulging in more of the dreary, negative versions of the imagination that look and feel real: tallying up the list of household chores that I simply must do before I sit down to write, worrying about how to pay off my rapidly escalating AMEX Blue Card, and exploring what the end of the Mayan calendar might mean to me personally.
Thus, rather than using my imagination to produce your average Western Civ Blockbuster, I mostly seem to use my imagination to create an engrossing Reality TV program called “Extreme Self Makeover.” Instead of soaring the heights with Blake et. al., I use my imagination to claustrophobically upgrade my own personal situation because most days I don’t really like who I am or where I am at in my life. I use it like a crutch to make life better (or, perversely, worse) rather than use it to create an innovative product from a life well-lived. And, I suspect this is true for others.
But, as an artist, this is truly debilitating because, if I want to say anything real at all, I have to be able to look reality squarely in the face and record what I see–not what I want to see. If my source of inspiration is my own narcissistic drama and I can only look at the world with my own version of Blake’s “mind-forged manacles,” I will only be capable of creating something that I am interested in, something static–not something that will help others see differently.
However, on those rare days when I can actually manage to turn the TV show off, I start to notice that the imagination that’s all around me–the twisted elm on my street, the muddled student essay in front of me, or the triple-installment poop that my dog needs to make in front of two lovers who keep trying to kiss and not laugh–is way more interesting than my own personal soap opera. I also discover quite quickly that I have much more energy to write and that the writing often surprises me. It lets me know what it wants. And, the things that emanate forth seem more honest, more interesting, more warts-and-all real.
So, for what it’s worth, I’ve learned to stop trying to get my rocks off with my imagination. Instead, I practice just shutting up and listening to it. Try it. I’m sure it will be a thin, hot hippie . . .
(1) Really, I couldn’t help myself! Of course, it helped that he took off his fisherman’s sandals in class, ran his hand through his hair, and inadvertently left a chalk print on his right butt cheek.
(2) This is really a straw man cavil, though, because as anybody who has ever met, known, dated, or lived with a writer will attest, we are the fucking horniest lot of humanity that exists. And, if a writer were being truly honest, he would freely admit that he hasn’t been stewing over how to incorporate Kant’s noumena into his latest novel for the last two hours so as much as he has been plotting ways to get the bimbo sipping her double-shot to reach over and grab her pen.
(3) Actually, to be fair, she re-opened it just for me because she loved my book, Chasing Tail, so much.