In a fantastic essay in The Wave in the Mind, ‘The Operating Instructions’, Ursula K Le Guin notes that imagination is humanity’s single most important tool.
She considers that while the concept of the ‘creative’ has become watered down, ‘imagination’ retains its power. It is a fundamental way of thinking, she argues, something that is innate but which we can learn how to use well, in a similar way to training the body.
During a period of travel around Spain, as I take time out of my normal life and immerse in imagining and writing, it’s encouraging to consider how vital imagination is.
So, how do we train the imagination?
Le Guin is adamant that we learn it best from literature, whether oral or written.
Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on … to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, there is nothing like a poem or a story.
Through story every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people.
This is powerful encouragement to writer. As I work on a complex story that has at it’s heart questions of identity and how we transform ourselves, it’s timely to remind myself that flying with the imagination promotes
- a sense of identity and renewed self-image
- autonomy within community
- deeper understanding
- alternative possibilities
- a sense of purpose and quest
That is a powerful tool with vast potential.
Imagination gives you a sense of identity and renewed self-image
Imagination is fundamental to how we see ourselves. If you think about how you saw yourself as a child, it’s likely that imagination played a huge role in what you decided to do as an adult. We play with dolls to imagine parenting. We have pretend cookers, pretend surgical kits, write plays that we make our families perform … Imagining leads to decisions, to seeing ourselves as a doctor, teacher, priest, writer, mother …
As a writer, I’m fascinated by the intersection of imagination and identity. My protagonists in the Casilda trilogy have searching questions about where identity begins and ends, about how we make connections across time and culture.
Imagination and identity are both internal processes. We have to imagine who we are before there are any external processes. Being comes before doing. Spontaneity then becomes a vision that we hand over to the unconscious and let it do its work. Moreover, imagination is a safe place in which to take risks; we can imagine outcomes before trying them out.
The philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, sees imagination as productive and creative. Ricoeur argues that imagination transforms reality through creative acts. Moreover he considers that the imagination that helps us form identity is most clearly manifested through fiction, which creates meaning. Similarly, Sartre saw imagination and narrativity as necessary for the formation of a coherent and meaningful sense of self.
In short, the story of who we are is an act of imagination. As Kurt Vonnegut puts it:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Imagination fosters autonomy
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