On Imagination: Part 1

by stephenpalmersf

  1. What is imagination?

On the various SFF forums which I enjoy contributing to there’s a huge amount of advice and debate on the technical issues of writing – rules, whether rules should be broken, whether rules exist, writing better characters, writing better action, writing better words. I almost never see discussion of imagination however, which is a shame, as to me this is a more important aspect of writing than any technical issue. So in this and the next couple of posts I’m going to ramble on a bit about imagination and creativity. We’ll take Amy with us, plucking her from the Factory Girl trilogy. I’m sure the Reverend Carolus Dodgson won’t mind.


Amy entered the walled garden with some trepidation, since some of the gardens that so far she had visited had been rather frightening. “But at least I have a parrot as a guide,” she thought. This garden however was unlike any other that she had seen, since its walls were arranged with shelves on which hundreds of books lay.

The Parrot said, “This is the Old Queen’s library garden.”

“Do you think I will meet the Old Queen?” Amy asked.

“If you ask nicely.”

“Oh, but I am always polite. My mama says it is a lady’s finest grace.”

In reply the Parrot said, “There is the librarian!”

Amy looked across a bed of lilies to see a most peculiar creature – hunch-backed, with large fin-like feet and a big face with eyes at the side. It wore a frock coat of scallop shells and smoked a clay pipe.

“Good afternoon!” this strange librarian said.

Amy curtseyed, replying, “And good afternoon to you, Mr…”

“I am the Land Whale,” the librarian replied.

“Whatever is a land whale?” Amy thought. After a few moments she said, “Are you perchance related to ocean whales?”

“Why indeed I am,” the librarian replied. “In one of these many books…” (and here he gestured at the tomes around him) “… it is said that whales once lived upon the land, before deciding to live in the sea. I am one of those sea whales who decided to return to the land.”

Amy thought this tale to be quite extraordinary, but she had heard of a book that made similar claims about the origins of various species, so she did not question the librarian further. “For that would indeed be forthright,” she thought, with a smile.

“Have you come here for a specific volume, child?” asked the librarian.

“Yes, we have,” the Parrot replied. “We seek the Book Of Imaginary Beings.”

At this the librarian gasped, sending a jet of water up from the back of his neck. “That book requires a considerable amount of respect!” he declared.


But what is the Book Of Imaginary Beings? And is it an entirely human construction?


The Land Whale lumbered across the garden to one of the shelves, removing a book then returning. Amy took it, but at once the Land Whale spoke, saying, “Beware, child! The creatures mentioned in this book will excite your mind into a fervour of creation.”

“Whatever does he mean?” Amy thought, before thinking further – “I wish he would stop rattling his frock coat when he speaks!”

Then Amy opened the book to its first page, to observe there the most gorgeous cat she had ever seen – jet black, with shiny fur, an elegant tail, and the greenest pair of green eyes possible. In fact, to her astonishment, she was able to touch the cat, and stroke it, whereupon it narrowed its eyes and began purring. “But this is a real cat,” she said, “and not imaginary at all.”

“So it is,” said the librarian.

Amy turned to the next page, to see a gorgeous antelope, with fawn coloured hide, white stripes, and two curly antler prongs. “Why, this antelope also is real,” she said.

“I think you are correct,” the librarian said.

Amy was so entranced by the beauty of the antelope that quite without realising it she took a pencil from the pocket of her dress and began sketching it on the blank page opposite. “This is the imaginary antelope,” she thought, as she continued to sketch. “I shall give it extra-twirly prongs!”

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“And thus the volume acquired its name,” remarked the Parrot.


If we are to draw any conclusion from Amy’s adventure it is that creativity is a response to something rather than a thing in its own right. But a response to what?

I’ve always thought the musings of artists significant in this respect, and of them Henri Matisse stands out. He understood what approach to take if he was to make great art:

If my works are of any interest, it is first and foremost because I observe Nature with awe and very closely. This is far more important than that virtuosity which constant, dedicated work will almost invariably lead to. I cannot emphasize sufficiently the need for an artist to be honest in his work.

About his late work he wrote:

Abstraction rooted in reality.

Matisse felt that he had to lose all learned sophistication and be innocent and fresh, like a child not yet socialised:

What it seems we must learn is to leave experience behind… The painter must have no preconceived notion of the model – his spirit must be open and receive everything, just as in a landscape he would take in every one of the scents of the air.

And Matisse knew that merely copying reality was not part of human art; all the possibilities created in the mind by reality were the artist’s inner vision:

I am incapable of making a slavish copy of Nature. Instead I feel compelled to interpret it…

Paul Cezanne also wrote with insight:

The artist… learns to see from Nature… Nature – I wanted to copy it. I did not succeed, but I was satisfied with myself when I discovered that, for example, the sun cannot simply be reproduced, that one has to express it more through something else… through colour.

Using the religious metaphor of divinity for nature and the world around him, Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

The divine elements painting comprises cause the painter’s mind to reflect the divine spirit itself; thus, before the eyes of the rising generations and of his own independent and powerful accord, the painter begins to create diverse living beings… landscapes…

Da Vinci advised others:

…if you do not start by becoming thoroughly familiar with the objects in Nature, you will not achieve anything worthy of note.

It would seem that ‘Nature’ is the source – by which the above artists mean the real world. Artistic merit, then, comes from a response to the real world. Is reality the source of human creativity?

I think it is. I think there is a directly proportional relationship between intensity of sensory experience of the real world and intensity (and amount) of creative response. In Amy’s case, it was because she saw a particularly fine cat that she felt compelled to create a response, drawing on the blank page opposite it. Likewise, with the antelope, she didn’t merely draw it, she gave it ‘extra-twirly prongs’; in other words she augmented the source imaginatively, creating a new image.

Imagination is depth of creativity. Experience more of the real world and you boost your imaginative potential.

Part 2 follows tomorrow.


The Girl With Two Souls