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

Lesson 17: Reclaiming Your Imagination

If you found the practices in the last lesson difficult, you may decide to give up on writing. I urge you not to do that! There are good reasons why it may be hard for you to use your imagination the way you want to.

First, the imagination has been entirely banished from our educational system (except, perhaps, in early childhood education). Instead, educators focus on the acquisition of information and the development of abstract thinking. (These are useful skills, but when they are relied upon to the exclusion of the imagination, they make us mentally unbalanced.) At higher levels of education, the banishment of the imagination is total, and “thinking about thinking” rules. If you have spent a lot of time in the academic world, you will probably have lost connection with your imagination.

At the same time, we (in North America) live in a bureaucratic and technological culture where information and ideas are prized and the ability to think with the imagination is generally ignored. So our imaginations usually don’t get much exercise as we do our jobs, either.

Furthermore, most of us have lives that are too fast-paced and crammed with activity. For our imagination to work well, we need to be relaxed. When we are hurried and under stress, it’s very difficult for our imaginations to work the way they were designed to do.

Finally—and most important—we are provided daily with hundreds of ready-made images: on television, in movies, in glossy magazines, on websites. When we look at something in the real world and try to make an image of it in our imagination, we have to do mental work; we have to exercise our imaginations. When we read sensory details in a published story or poem, once again our imaginations must work to make the pictures. In doing this work, our imaginations get stronger. But when we take in images from television or movies, magazines or websites, our imaginations have to do no work at all; they merely have to passively absorb the pictures. And so our faculty of imagination does not get stronger; it loses its natural ability to make sensory pictures. (It’s also true that the images from the mass media are predominantly visual, giving the eye an unnatural dominance over the other senses. Images we make from our reading, though, can use all the senses.) In all other eras of human history and prehistory, people used their imaginations all the time; now, enslaved by mass media, most people don’t.

For all these reasons, it’s very likely that you haven’t had much practice in using and developing your imagination. Instead of telling yourself, “I should be able to do this already,” let yourself be a little kid, at play in the world of the imagination. You may even like to revisit some of your favorite books from childhood and let them bring pictures to your mind.

If you want to develop your imagination, you need to make a place for this faculty in your life. You may want to take some time to reflect on how you can do that. Perhaps you’d like to use the practices in the previous lessons on a regular basis to get you started. Perhaps you can develop some of your own practices.

I firmly believe that the most important thing aspiring creative writers can do is to stop spending so much time with mass media. Not only do activities such as watching television or surfing the Net waste your time, they also keep filling your mind with pre-fab images, preventing you from developing images of your own. (Those who want to write screenplays for television or films naturally have to spend time with those media. But people who want to write stories or novels, poems or essays, really don’t have to.)

Television-watching, for many people, is a kind of addiction; so, too, for some, is spending time on the Internet. If you feel you are one of these people, and you want to write, you will need to get your addiction under control. Instead of turning on a machine, try going for a walk to do some observation practice, or lying down with your eyes closed to exercise your imagination. You may find that, after a while, you no longer need the stimulation of images manufactured by other people; you’d rather make your own.

Think on paper about how you can make time to practice using your imagination. Is there anything you can give up (TV, Internet, magazines?) so you have more time to make your own images? Are there any ways you can practice using small windows of time (waiting at a stoplight? standing in line at the bank?)

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