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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 12: Imaginative Writing

We typically refer to poems and stories, novels and plays—even, these days, some kinds of nonfiction—as “creative writing.” Each one of these kinds of writing, or genres, works differently, and if you want to produce pieces of writing in a given genre, you need to know how that genre works. In these lessons I do not discuss the specific things you need to know to write a poem or a novel or a play; there are hundreds of books available which will teach you these things. Instead, here (and in my book, How To Be a Writer,) I provide you with the opportunity to learn some basic creative writing skills you can then apply to work in whichever genre interests you. I do this because my experience as a teacher has shown me that many people don’t realize that creative writing requires the use of different mental faculties than other kinds of writing.

What makes “creative writing” different from, say, academic papers or a report at work, is not creativity; for the creative faculty (the part of our minds that comes up with things to say and the words to communicate them) can be used in any kind of writing (though, sadly, it often is not used very skillfully). What sets creative writing apart is the necessary use of the imagination. And so I think it would be more useful to call poems and stories and creative nonfiction imaginative writing.

What do you think the imagination is?

If you’re like most people, you think it’s simply invention or fantasy. But while the imagination does help us invent things, that’s not its primary function. At its most basic, the imagination is the mental faculty that enables us to make pictures in our minds of things that are not actually present to our senses.

To understand this better, you might like to try a simple exercise: Close your eyes, and then bring to your mind a picture of what you ate for breakfast. Try to make the picture as detailed as possible: let yourself not only see, but smell and taste and feel —even hear— the cereal or the toast and coffee. Once you’ve got this picture in your mind to your satisfaction, open your eyes and look around you. Is your breakfast actually there before you, present to your senses? Unless you are reading this lesson while you eat breakfast, the answer will be no.

Now consider, for a moment, just how utterly amazing it is that our imaginations can do this—can create a mental picture of something that isn’t in front of us. I believe that the imagination is one of the marvels of the human brain; perhaps it is the faculty responsible for our having become human. Certainly without it humans could never have developed culture and art and music and literature.

Perhaps you had trouble doing this; perhaps you tell yourself sadly, “I have no imagination.” But everyone has an imagination— without one we couldn’t function. It’s just that most of us don’t get a chance to use the imagination, and so—like any muscle we don’t use — it gets weak and atrophies. With practice, though, we can bring our imagination back to life and make it strong and healthy so we can use it in our writing any time we want to.

Why do we need the imagination in certain kinds of writing? Because an essential characteristic of any piece of creative writing is that it makes people and places and things come alive in the minds of readers. More specifically, it makes people and places and things come alive in the imaginations of readers. Poets and novelists and other creative writers are, like all writers, engaged in the work of communication. But while writers of academic books or professional reports use information and ideas to communicate, creative writers use verbal pictures. Creative writers, then, are those who make pictures (also called images ) in their own imaginations and transfer those pictures, through language, into the imaginations of others.

You have probably been taught that only specially gifted people can be creative writers. I don’t believe this is true. Rather, I believe that the use of the imagination comes naturally to us all, but that we learn to write in an educational system that completely ignores this essential human faculty in favor of the intellect. As a result, many people who want to write don’t have access to their imaginations and don’t understand how the imagination works. Even so, you can get back in touch with your imagination, no matter how long it’s been since you last used it. And you can learn how this faculty works, and exercise and strengthen it so it will serve your writing.

Here’s a practice that will get you started:

Take a short piece of writing by one of your favorite writers (a story, a chapter, a poem, or what have you). Read through it slowly, trying, as best you can, to let the words make pictures in your mind. These “pictures” don’t have to be only visual: you might hear voices or other sounds, taste or smell something, or feel something with your skin; you might even feel that your body is being moved in some way. When you’ve finished, make a list of everything you were able to imagine (“I saw the black cat; I tasted the steak”). Now look through the piece again, seeing if you can identify the words that created those pictures in your mind. Write down those words beside the pictures you noticed in your mind.

Try this practice again, with another piece of writing.

We’ll be doing some more practices to wake up your imagination, but first we need to turn to another mental faculty, on which the imagination depends.

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