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Hieronymus Bosch


One of my many horrible habits is reading a lot of…blogs. It’s one way to keep my vanity in perspective, especially when it comes to blogs about writing/getting published/getting yourself ‘out there’ as a writer – or a writer-wannabe.

You see, a good many of these blogs are exercises in humility. (Which could also be said of writing.) No matter what you think, you will never be …good enough, never mind good enough to publish. You will never get to the point where you have “arrived” as a writer, unless you started in the Seventies and have remained a best-selling author ever since.

I can handle that. I can handle being told that no matter what I think, I have not one original idea in that pathetically pea-sized cerebellum at the tip of my spinal cord. I can handle that I will unlikely ever become a published writer. I can even manage to overlook the appalling amount of crap that does get published, just to discourage the rest of us who are arrogant enough to believe in the stories we tell, rightly or wrongly.

But when I recently came across a blog discussing the perils of imagination, I blew a mental safety valve or two.

One writer – published, promoted, with a certain reputation – was accosted by a fan at a book convention. Before I incriminate myself any further, may I say I am in no position to pass judgment on this writer, never having read her, but the implications that lay hidden in that fan’s criticisms made me think…big time.

She was asked by this fan if she had ever been to a location mentioned in one of her stories. She told him no, that it was all her imagination and a bit of research. The fan, obviously a product of the ‘reality TV’ generation, then bashed her over the head with: “But how can I ever take you seriously as a writer again? I thought you had been there! I thought you were cool, and now, I can’t believe a word you write any longer!”

Which was around the time I blew that valve…

So imagination is a liability for a writer? WTF???????

Ahem. If we apply that criterion to some of the Late and Great, well, whaddaya know…there go…Jonathan Swift, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe and entire collected works of Jules Verne, to name very, very few…erhmmm…how about all sci-fi ever written? Heinlein invented several alternate timelines in his stories, but do you think he ever actually experienced them?

Of course he did – except not literally. He had…imagination, one of the few things left in this cynical world which gives yours truly any hope for humanity’s future.

You could apply that to whichever field you choose: imagination gave us the benzene molecule, the general theory of relativity, quantum physics, ‘Das Kapital’, the Sistine Chapel and all of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and the ‘Ring of the Nibelungen’. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. And. And. And.

Feel free to add to that list. It would make for a very, very long list. Once upon a time, for instance, all painted art was either representational and/or devotional – and often, both. It was until a Dutch painter in the late 15th century either suffered a bad case of ergot poisoning or a bad attack of imagination and created the triptych called ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. The art world has never quite recovered.

Just as that writer had never been to a pivotal place in her story, except in her head, I have…never been to New York as an adult, never met the Devil in a café, and I have never set foot in the music venue in Copenhagen I used as the model for ‘Alcatraz’.

Someone I know quite well is writing a crime thriller about a female serial killer of a kind that makes Hannibal Lecter seem like a milquetoast wimp, and so far as I know, she is so soft-hearted, she has a hard time swatting flies and mosquitoes in summer.

It all comes back to…imagination. Imagination, where time and space are irrelevant, where anything can happen and often does, where our only limitations are in how far we dare to follow – a dream, a story, a possibility that may or may not happen.

If limitations were an issue, if he were confined to the world around him, Hieronymus Bosch would never have given us that triptych of phantasmagorias, Da Vinci would never have invented the helicopter or the tank or even painted the Madonna of the Rocks, and Dr. Fleming would never have discovered penicillin. If not for imagination, we would never have made it to the moon, or even Mars. If not for imagination, we might as well do ourselves in, because it’s only when we dare to dream, dare to exercise our imagination that we can dream a way out of whatever pickles we find ourselves in.

If that fan at that convention had dared to follow his own thought through, he should have realized that the conviction that made him believe the author had, in fact, been to the location of her story was a testament to her imagination. She made him believe – that it happened, that she was there, that, by extension, he was there, and what he really objected to was not a lack of reality, but that he had been misled – by his own imagination, and isn’t that the purpose of fiction?

I can imagine – that some day, in some future, I will be able to write something someone else will want to read. I can imagine that those words will have relevance and importance above and beyond whatever flies through my pea brain at the moment of writing it.

The one thing I can never, ever imagine – is being without imagination. Even reality is a construct – it’s all a question of perspective, and how can you have perspective if you have no imagination?

Image: Detail of Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”

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