The Power of Imagination
Azar Nafisi is one of my favorite writers. Professor Nafisi grew up in Tehran reading traditional Persian literature and novels in English and French as well. Nafisi’s The Republic of the Imagination argues that imagination is central to our lives and that a lack of it leads to governments that control rather than inspire. When she was asked how she occupied her time in Tehran as bombs were falling during the Iran-Iraq war, she responded, “…I read James, Eliot, Plath and great Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez…it is precisely during such times, when our lives are transformed by violence, that we need works of imagination to confirm our faith in humanity, to find hope amid the rubble of a hopeless world.” Her understanding of literature and the imagination resonates with my own. From my early days to the present, I have taken refuge in the freedom of reading literature. Flights of the authors’ imaginations have always transported me to new realms where I could wander on my own. My own love of stories led me to pursue literature as a course of study. It has also led me to write fiction.
What Is the Imagination?
The French perspective on the imagination is called l’imaginaire. In English we don’t use the term in exactly the same way. L’imaginaire in French refers more to the structure of the imagination and how human beings use it to build their own worlds of understanding. Americans, in my experience, tend to focus more on creativity, which is an aspect of imaginative thought. Definitions of the imaginary in English include inventiveness or inspiration. Imaginary can refer to the unreal or something that exists only in your mind’s eye. Incongruously, every day we rely on vision and the powers of the imagination to move us forward.
Even if our imaginings are unreal, we spend much of our time in our imaginations. We imagine a social structure that surrounds us. We imagine romance. We daydream about what we wish we had said to someone or replay scenes in our minds. In our dreams or nightmares, which represent about a third of our life, we visualize places, people, actions—happenings that would be impossible to undertake in our waking lives.
Each of us carries our own imaginaire with us throughout life. We may comfort ourselves or delude ourselves. When I was a child, I had an imaginary twin named Lana. She was a great comfort to me when I needed to talk to someone. Lana still seems more real to me than children I knew in my neighborhood. I have learned to remediate my own delusions through meditation because that is a pathway I prefer not to follow.
As an aspiring novelist, I am imagining three different imaginary worlds. I can picture them, envision what my characters are doing, saying, feeling. I can even imagine my characters’ imaginations, dreams, or delusions. Having the freedom to imagine is critical to a fulfilling life, especially as a writer.
Creating Imaginary Worlds in Fiction
Recently, I’ve been studying how various authors deploy their imaginations. In the realm of speculative fiction (which the French call alternately litérature d’anticipation or science-fiction), the author imagines, speculates, or anticipates what a world in the future might be like. Margaret Atwood imagines a normal American world transformed into a fascistic, pseudo-religious facsimile in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and its downfall in The Testaments (2019). Octavia Butler in her novel Parable of the Sower (1993) foresees Los Angeles in 2024 as a dangerous dystopian world where people are trying to escape to the north because of the drought. Pitchaya Sudbanthad, in Bangkok Wakes to Rain (2019), envisions a world in which technology has advanced in strange ways despite global warming and the flooding of the city. In The Old Drift (2019), Namwali Serpell anticipates a bio-technological takeover of humans using tiny drones. Imagination grounded in past and potential reality is what makes these novels so gripping.
Using Imagination in Realistic Fiction
The novels I am working on are not speculative. In one sense they are historical fiction because they take place in the 20th century, thus my own imaginary world is more constrained by reality than those of the authors I have discussed above.
Isabel Allende in A Long Petal to the Sea builds a story with a historical figure, Pablo Neruda, as well as imagined characters based on the stories of individuals who survived the Spanish Civil War and later a revolution in Chile. My characters are not historical figures, although some are inspired by individuals I have known. I am attempting to ground my story in historical facts and events, but I have to invent the action and the characters themselves. Thus, my imaginaire has to create the characters’ lives, imaginations, dreams, nightmares, and world as individuals who lived at that time might have experienced their own times.
Writing Goals for 2020
Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:
Over the last few weeks, I began working on my first two novels using a revision technique discussed in the Colorado Writers Collaborative online conference by LS Hawker, who writes thrillers. I began with revising both timelines.
Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:
This month I worked on more detailed descriptions of my characters.
Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:
Today is October 7, 2020, I am posting my tenth blog of 2020. Over the last month, it has been difficult to concentrate on my own work. The air here has been very smoky from the forest fires in Colorado and on the west coast. COVID-19 cases have soared in our University community. We also had an unseasonal six inches of snowfall so I had to undertake a premature harvest of my garden.
Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:
As Vice President of Boulder Writer’s Alliance this past month, I zoomed into a workshop presented by Rick Killian, President. Rick discussed the hero’s journey and suggested that as readers read they imagine themselves as the hero of the story they are reading.
In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group, we analyzed The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. The story continues Atwood’s tale of a former United States, known in the novel as Gilead. Gilead is ruled by a male-centric, fascist-style government which is defeated by a woman-led underground network.
This month I didn’t watch any online sessions with the Denver Women’s Press Club but I recruited a potential new member.
Members of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers were invited to attend the newly formed Colorado Writers Collaborative’s online conference. The sessions were pre-recorded, then loaded onto YouTube. I watched 30, all of which were insightful. Topics that spoke most to me included: revising the first draft of your novel, editing the first draft, creating depth in characters, the most common mistakes novel writers make, tips for indie writers, and others. I appreciated the fact that when I didn’t quite catch something the speaker said, I could rewind. I also used closed captioning which really helped with comprehension. From my perspective as an online audience member, I learned how important it is for presenters to put their name and the title of the workshop on the first slide; introduce themselves on the second slide; give an outline of the presentation; and end with contact information.