On Imagination: Part 3

by stephenpalmersf

3. How is imagination?

My experience of writing the Factory Girl trilogy was different to that of my other novels, with the exception of Memory Seed and Hairy London. In the case of The Girl With Two Souls in particular, the book seemed fully formed before I began writing, emerging at 5,000 words per day as if all I had to do was take dictation from my unconscious mind.

I think that is likely how it happened, albeit with some conscious editing along the way. I’ve long thought that much of the work of the author is done without them realising it. In the case of the Factory Girl trilogy the entire scenario came together in a two hour burst of inspiration, and little changed afterwards in the structure and plotting. The first volume was written similarly, in about twenty days. This kind of inspiration is great when it happens, and is an indication that a lot of work is happening behind the scenes.

Human beings have an unconscious for a reason. It would be impossible to live and remain sane if we remembered all our experiences; the amount of information would soon become overwhelming. Instead we lay down long-term memories, we generalise, and we use the model of the world created in our minds, a model which can be very sophisticated (if you are lucky enough to live a life that allows you to grow). In my case, that mental model included the structure, characters, plot and style of the entire trilogy. It was in my mind, waiting to be written.

While I don’t think there is much individual authors can do to make significant changes to their imaginative powers, that being dependent upon genetics and upbringing, I do think there are many tactics which can be used to improve what creativity an author already has.

The first tactic is essentially what I have written so far – let your unconscious do its work. Did a novel scenario burst forth as if already formed? That means it was lurking in your mind, waiting to come out, and you will benefit from following its lead. Is there a previously overlooked character who is clamouring to become more significant? Many authors experience the odd sensation of a minor character becoming much more important than they had planned – it means something in the author’s unconscious is at work, signalling to the conscious mind. I had this happen to me in The Girl With One Friend, when Pastor Richardson emerged as a foil to Kora and Erasmus. I’m not sure he was even in the original conception, in fact. But he turned out to be significant for the development of Erasmus as a character.

Bertrand Russell dispensed this advice to authors about to begin a novel: go to Canada and be a lumberjack for three months. What he meant was, give your unconscious time to sort out the structure of the work.

The second tactic is to trust yourself. This applies more to experienced authors, but novices too can learn to work with their unconscious, and should do. I think however that it is more difficult in this latter case, since the less experienced author is bombarded with advice about writing technique and so on. But, as I’m suggesting in this trio of blog posts, I think it is more important to focus on imagination. Amongst the best advice from an author that I read when I was a tyro was: “If you’re stuck, don’t think about words. Imagine it better.” That advice is a cornerstone of my own writing life.

Trusting yourself also includes allowing yourself the freedom to make mistakes. Actually I think mistakes are more rare than authors realise. We live in a society where there is constant scrutiny of work and an atmosphere of mild anxiety, not helped by the pressure to succeed if you ‘out yourself’ as an author, for example on writing forums. It could be argued that Gwyneth Jones’ notion to use acronyms and an oblique writing style was a mistake in Escape Plans (a few commentators have suggested this), but I think it is more a feature of her unique vision, which she had the good sense to follow. Being an author is a solo activity, not a group activity informed by the tenets of social media. Following the lead of your unconscious means letting yourself say “bollocks to public opinion, this is the way the book had to be written.” My novel Woodland Revolution is written in a particular style, an unusual style perhaps, but I know it could not have been written any other way. It is what it is.

A third tactic is another author staple, but it bears repeating. Although many of my novels are written quickly in a burst of inspiration I do get stuck along the way, usually as a result of minor plot details. In such cases I allow my unconscious to work by going out for a walk. Because I live on the edge of a small town in the middle of the Shropshire countryside this is easy, and relaxing, but it doesn’t have to be a walk. It could be any analogous activity that takes you away from the problem and allows your unconscious mind some freedom: cooking, gardening, listening to music. I have to admit though, I’m still amazed at the efficacy of this tactic. It works for me every time.

So, if you are stuck, it’s best not to think about the problem in front of your computer screen. Take yourself away, allow yourself some freedom, let your unconscious flex its muscles.

A fourth tactic, which again works for me but which I haven’t seen elsewhere in online discussions, is to read more non-fiction. These days I read fiction far less often than non-fiction. I find that my interest in the real world is an inspiration for much of what I write, for instance my thirty year fascination in the mysteries of consciousness and the human condition, which led me to write Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox, although the former of those two books was also inspired by the appalling record SF has when dealing with AI and the human mind. The novel I’m working on at the moment – The Autist, a novel of AGI and Big Data – is similarly inspired by the real world. And if I had not read Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth, Woodland Revolution would have been a very different book. Non-fiction allows the mental models we all carry in our mind to expand and develop. In the long term, this is a powerful aid to imagination. For me, fiction less often has this effect.

So the best stance to take is one of experiencing. As I said earlier, reality needs to be seen very clearly. The clearer reality is seen and the more vividly it is experienced, the more intense the desire to transcend; in other words, the more creative you are. It isn’t that being creative allows you to see more clearly, in some special human way, rather that seeing and experiencing in a special way, in a human way, brings creativity as a consequence.

And this stance is one of union with reality, not of separation via reductionism. It is a delusion to believe that observation-at-a-distance is the best way of experiencing the world, a delusion created by centuries of male scientists and philosophers. “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” – Gandalf the Grey.

Amy noticed that the garden was being enjoyed by people; but there was a grey mist upon the garden that meant she could not see them, except as the kind of blurs one sees through spectacles (when spectacles are not needed). To the Parrot she said, “I wonder who all these people are? They seem to be enjoying this garden.” And she looked at the late afternoon sun, whose warmth she still felt upon her skin.

“How will you discover who they are?” asked the Parrot. Amy glanced up to see that the Parrot also was a grey blur, which – because they had become acquaintances – she found quite disturbing.

“I do not know,” Amy replied. “Nor do I know how to discover who you are, since you also are a blur.”

“Perhaps your best course of action would be to mingle with these people,” said the Parrot, “as you did in the first walled garden that you visited.”

“Very well,” Amy replied – for she truly admired the courage of the Parrot, and knew that its remark concerning her timidity approached the truth.

So saying, Amy walked along gravel paths and down moss-covered steps to reach the central sections of the garden, where she could see most of the blurs. Though she knew them to be people – because of the way they walked, from the snatches of conversation that she could hear, and from the fact that the parasols she observed must surely be carried by ladies – she did not know who they were.

Amy began to feel terribly alone. She enjoyed company, and did not like to feel left out of society; not in any shape or form! She particularly liked fairs, musical concerts, and long evening conversations before a log fire with her family. In this garden, however, she felt ostracised, because she knew the people only as blurs.

As she wandered amongst the crowd however she began to notice small details: a pleasant expression on a face, a golden ring on an index finger, a way of walking, a gesture, a laugh, all of which she recognised.

“In fact,” said the Parrot, “you do know some of these people!”

“Why, yes!” Amy replied, delighted. “There is my sister Alice.” And at once she rushed over to Alice to give her a great big hug, whereupon Alice changed from being half blur, half girl into the little sister that she knew so well.

“Hello, Amy!” said Alice.

Amy grinned, then studied the rest of the crowd of blurs, to see also her papa and her mama, who she also gave a hug; and as she hugged them they resolved from grey blurs into real people, enjoying the sunlit garden as much as she was.

Let’s allow Amy to have the final word on creativity and imagination.

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.

“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.

And that’s the great advantage of daydreaming.


The Girl With One Friend