Bears figured prominently in our household when my stepdaughter was growing up, invoked through the trickster aspect of our relationship. I had been feeding her lines of what one can only call tall tales or creative hogwash. For example, she would find a letter under her pillow from the "frog fairy," not the tooth fairy, with a couple of Chinese coins enclosed. The letter apologized for a lack of U.S. currency and explained that the exchange rate for teeth wasn't favorable right now. Finally, she decided to get back at me. She knew that I, an agnostic, was trying to learn more about her mother's Jewish faith. So during our first holiday season together she told me all about the glory that was the "Hanukkah Bear," and I wound up reciting these "facts" to the rabbi at my wife's synagogue — only to find out, much to everyone's amusement, that she had "punked" me. I wasn't mad at all; instead, I was impressed by the quality of her imagination. This imagination manifested in many other wonderful ways. When she pointed at a ferret while at a park and said, "long mouse," I didn't know if she was joking or finding the best description for an animal unknown to her, but I knew that detail would one day make it into a story.
We also teamed up for acts of creation. Once, when she had friends over, I asked her to "remember to find the iguana and feed him." We had no iguana, but that didn't stop Erin from picking up on the hint and looking for the iguana all over the house, much to the wide-eyed consternation of her friends. Later, I pretended a ghost of the now-dead iguana haunted us — a logical progression of its story arc, we thought, and no big deal, but somewhat problematic for other people. That ghost iguana, that Hanukkah Bear, stuck in my head for more than a decade; these characters led later to a novella entitled Komodo and to a galaxy-spanning science-fiction epic.
When unburdened by the need to put words on a page, the imagination often appears as a form of love and sharing: playful, generous, and transformative. The best fiction is often driven by this invisible engine, which hums and purrs and sighs. It's this flicker, or flutter, at the heart of good stories that animates them, and this movement — ever different, ever unpredictable — that makes each story unique.
The more we allow it into our lives, the better, and the less we treat it just as a pack of lies, the more we're enriched. In a very real sense, too, the history of the world could be seen as an ongoing battle between good and bad imaginations — and the existence we have created on Earth is both sad and uplifting as a result. Your imagination and your stories exist within this wider context, and sometimes you'll find you need to break free of other people's imaginations to allow your own uniqueness to shine through.
Perhaps because the power and influence of the imagination is greater than we often think, our attitude toward it has sometimes been ambivalent. To take just one example from the world's cultures, during the Middle Ages in Europe the imagination was often associated with the senses and thus thought to be one of the links between human beings and animals. Not until the Renaissance did the imagination become linked to the intellect, in part through what were known as contes philosophiques (philosophical stories).
Different forces are at work today with regard to the imagination. Modern ideals of functionality and the trend toward seamless design in our technology have taken the very human striving for perfection and given us the illusion of having attained it (which, ironically, seems very dehumanizing). In this environment, some writers second-guess their instincts and devalue the sense of play that infuses creative endeavors: "This antique Tiffany lamp must provide light right now, even before I screw in the lightbulb and plug it in, or it's worthless." At best the imagination can be seen as heat lightning with no real weight or effect, instead of the source. At worst, it's dismissed as frivolous and a waste of time, with no real-world applications.
To some extent, I understand the reasons for this attitude. Creative play speaks to an aspect of the imagination that defies easy measurement. It brings yet another level of uncertainty to an endeavor already saturated with the subjective. That truth can make writers and readers alike uncomfortable. The world wants to believe in technique and craft, in practice and hard work as the main ingredients of success.
Related to this idea is the cautionary tale about two writers. One had a brilliant imagination and the other a slightly lesser imagination, but Lesser had more tenacity and drive than Greater, so Greater failed while Lesser went on to a substantial career. There's rarely much follow-up discussion about Greater (and what might have been lost) after that point, except a kind of lingering subtext of pity for the one who couldn't quite handle it ... perhaps because we fear being that person. Or perhaps because we sometimes look across the room at the looming shadow of our imagination curling back on us, and we realize we cannot control the at times uncomfortable things it can bring us. (The world is filled with people who have too much imagination solely because the people around them have too little.)
Inherent in this idea of "play" being immature and frivolous is the idea that, just like business processes, all creative processes should be efficient, timely, linear, organized, and easily summarized. If it's not clearly a means to an end, it must be a waste of time. In the worst creative writing books, this method is expressed in seven-point plot outlines and other easy shortcuts rather than as exercises to help encourage the organic development of your own approach.
This kind of codification sometimes reflects a fear of the unpredictability of the imagination and the need to have a set of rules in place through which to understand the universe. It's also a push back against the idea that a Hanukkah bear or ghost iguana might ever have creative value. Bears should just be bears. Iguanas should be real. An iguana is not a plot outline. Except, it is the beginning of a plot outline, because the creative process can begin anywhere and look like anything. The structure of a story can grow as easily from the way the residue at the bottom of a coffee cup resembles a continent as it can from reading a newspaper story about a heroic act. The most important thing is allowing the subconscious mind to engage in the kind of play that leads to making the connections necessary to create narrative.
From Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer. Copyright 2013 by Jeff VanderMeer. Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.