For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Imagination And Memory: A Creative Tension

'Imagination is the voice of daring. If there is anything Godlike about God it is that. He dared to imagine everything.'
Henry Miller

I don't plan before I write. Instead I start with an image that haunts me and perhaps a theme or two then see what emerges. The word imagination comes from the Latin word imago, which means image. According to psychologist, Robert Johnson, in his book, Inner Work, 'the imagination is the image-forming faculty in the mind. . .it generates the symbols the unconscious uses to express itself' Imagination is vital for creative life, for abstract thought, for the development of the sciences, philosophy, religion and even language. As Catherine Ann Jones wrote in The Way of Story, 'images are the language of the soul', yet in popular modern terms the role of the imagination has been denigrated, coming to mean something fictitious or a daydream and often labelled as mere fantasy.

The word fantasy is derived from the Greek word phantasia which meant 'a making visible'. For the Greeks, phantasia was much more than a daydream, it was, as Johnson wrote, 'the organ by which the divine world spoke to the human mind'. For me too, the image making faculty is far more than mere fantasy. Einstein believed that 'imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand'. I too believe that the imagination is perhaps the greatest gift humanity has been given. Its only limits are the ones we place upon it and ourselves.

Imagination is what makes us human, enabling us to experience events and emotions we might not normally experience, to reflect, to find commonality with others and thus understand ourselves. As writers we can imagine fictional characters and in so doing, reveal and discover something about ourselves and others, for as Lousie DeSalvo explained in The Healing Power of Story, 'storytelling teaches us or reteaches us empathy. This trait is a prerequisite for treating others well but it depends upon our ability to imagine what it feels like to be another person. We do this through storytelling.'

Imagination is like the trickster gods of old - a powerful liberating force, cutting through what has been established, making strange what is normal, allowing us to step into the shoes of another, to break free of what we know and to fly. And yet, Carmel Bird says in Dear Writer, 'the worlds of the imagination are constructed from the things we find in the everyday world'. Bird distinguishes between this everyday world and the imaginative world of 'other possibilities' but says there is no conflict between them, that the writer must give permission to the imagination to 'rearrange the building blocks of everyday reality'. Therefore the writing process is about taking the familiar and making it strange, letting the imagination create something new from what is known and thus venture into the realms of the unknown.

Imagination is not solely responsible for the mystery and magic of writing. Memory too, plays an important role. The word memory, comes from the Greek word Mnemosyne. Born from the marriage of Uranus and Gaia, heaven and earth, Mnemosyne was personified as the mother of the nine muses and the patron goddesses of poets. Fiction writers spend a great deal of time inhabiting the world of the imagination, but also draw heavily on memory, for as Jones writes, 'memory is one of the primal sources for creative images'. I am fascinated by the memories we carry (often unconsciously) and the way they arise in the process of storytelling, make links between seemingly disparate ideas and provide significance and revelation. In the process of writing, a tension is created between the grounding nature of memory and the flightiness of the imagination. For me, the vitality of that tension creates meaning. It is the source of my stories. Trusting it, is an act of faith in the unfolding mystery of story. In The Creative Writing Coursebook, Lesley Glaister writes that 'memory is refracted through imagination, often unconsciously, into something new.' That, she says, is 'the real stuff of fiction memory blended, refracted, transformed.'

As I write, I work closely with the unconscious; In the process I take my own memories and recreate them, usually in a fictional way, finding links and themes and connoting meaning through metaphor. 'Memory is a poet, explains Patti Miller in Writing Your Life, it stores 'experiences in imaginative patterns. . . connections are made through imaginative association rather than logic.' Miller goes on to distinguish between the left and right sides of the brain, suggesting that when people try to write from the logical left part of their mind, their stories become dull and flat, whereas the right side of the brain is where the imagination and poetry lie. As Einstein once said, 'logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.'

In her novel, Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels writes that 'the memories we elude catch up to us, overtake us like a shadow. A truth appears suddenly in the middle of a thought, a hair on a lens'. This is how my memories arose while I was writing Flight; spontaneously, from the right side of the brain, overtaking me with sudden revelations. At first the memories seemed random and out of context, so I was tempted to ignore them. Instead I decided to trust the creative process, so I took the bare facts and used my imagination to expand each memory and link it with my protagonist, Fern. Only then did I receive the gift that always comes with this connection, the hidden revelation, an understanding of its significance. For it is memory that helps us identify the patterns in our lives and imagination that helps us to interpret them. 'How we remember,' writes Jones 'is how we give meaning to a life lived.'.

As more of my memories arose and were given to Fern, I wondered if by giving my memories away I was in a sense emptying myself and in so doing, might in some way lose myself. In his book, Creativity, Osho distinguishes between psychological and factual memory, stating that factual memory is necessary but psychological memory is not. 'Factual memory,' he says, 'is not a problem, it is pure remembrance. When you become psychologically affected by it, then the problem arises'. I realised then, that this was the essence of the journeys many of us take when writing, particularly about trauma or pain. The result is a clearing of our emotional attachment to these memories. We still have them, and yet in writing them we release ourselves from their spell or 'curse' and thus the identity they had constructed. In writing about memories in this way, we evoke our imaginations to transform them and thus liberate ourselves from them, not lose ourselves in them. In the end though, whether it be fiction or memoir and no matter what reasons we draw on memory in our writing, memory is a rich and authentic source of material for writers, helping us to create credible characters, settings and back story. It is memory that grounds our stories, while imagination gives our stories the wings they need to soar.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:


  1. A fine description of the writing process.

  2. Its a great piece of work for sure... keep up the good work