There is an article in the books section of Last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph which caught my attention. It is written by Hanif Kureishi, who is a novelist and a teacher of writing. He makes the basic point that to be a ‘good writer’ one should not concentrate on a study of such things as plot, perspective and dialogue; rather, one should give the imagination free rein. He goes on to make the following specific points:
“The imagination rarely behaves well. It can be ignored and censored, but never entirely willed away. Such a willing away would be a mistake because, unlike fantasy, which is inert and unchanging – in fantasy we tend to see the same things repeatedly – the imagination represents hope, rebirth and a new way of being. If fantasy is a return of the familiar, you might say that an inspiration is a suddenly uncovered part of the self, something newly seen or understood. Emerson, who tells us in ‘Compensation’ that ‘growth comes by shocks’, writes in another essay, ‘The best moments of life are those delicious awakenings of the higher powers.’
“One of my students said he read books in order to have ‘more ideas about life’. You’d have to say that the imagination is an essential faculty, and that it can be developed and followed. It is as necessary as love, because without it we are trapped in the bleak polarities of either/or, in a North Korea of the mind, dead and empty, with not much to look at. Without imagination we cannot reconceive what we know, or see far enough. The imagination, while struggling with inhibition, represents more thought and possibility; it is myriad, complex, liquid, wild and erotic.
“The imagination is not only an instrument of art. We cannot delegate speculation to artists. Or rather: whether we like it or not, we are all condemned to be artists. We are the creators and artists of our own lives, of the future and of the past – of whether, for instance, we view the past as a corpse, a resource or something else. We are artists in the way we see, interpret and construct the world. We are daily artists of play, conversation, walks, food, friendship, sex and love. Every kiss, every piece of work or meal, every exchanged word and every heard thing – there are better ways of listening – has some art in it, or none.
“To survive successfully in the world requires great capability. To be bold and original is difficult labour; it can seem impossible, because we have histories and characters that become fixed identities. We are made before we know it; we are held back by who we are made into. Not only that, we are inhabited by destructive, chattering devils who want less than the best for us. . . . There is nothing as dangerous as safety, keeping us from reinvention and re-creation. Imaginative work can seem destructive, and might annihilate that which we are most attached to.
“Naturally, if we can do this, we pay for our pleasures in guilt. However, in the end, misery and despair are more expensive, and make us ill. Let madness be our guide, not our destination.
“Aspiring writer who wish to be taught plot, structure and narrative are not mistaken, but following the rules produces only obedience and mediocrity. Great writing and great ideas are strange: their sorcery and magic are more like dreaming with intent than they are like descriptions of the world. Daily art makes and remakes the world, giving it meaning and substance. . . . The imagination creates reality rather than imitates it. There is no interesting consensus about the way the world is. In the end, there is nothing more out there but what we make of it, and whether we make more or less of it is a daily question about how we want to live and who we want to be.”
I think this is a brilliant essay about the role of imagination in writing and in life. For more about identity, how it is formed and shapes our lives, I refer the reader to Sable Shadow and The Presence.