Fire and Fuel
Beginning novelists are often confused about imagination and inspiration, unsure of the specific roles each one plays and unsure of how the two interrelate.
Think of them in this context: imagination can be compared to fire, while inspiration can be compared to the fuel that feeds the fire.
In the times of our ancestors, before the common matchstick was invented and developed, preserving fire was of utmost importance. What good would it do to have a fireplace full of wood all neatly stacked, and have not so much as a spark of fire to get it going?
Likewise, what good to have a match or lighter flaming up, but nothing to feed the fire to keep it going? (Ever read Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire”?) Fire with no fuel is fairly useless.
Imagination is the Crux
Imagination is the crux of all story telling (i.e. novel writing). We novelists get a smidgen of an idea (should I say spark), and from there the imagination plays with it and begins to turn it every which way to examine it and see if it does indeed contain solid story material.
That little idea could have come from anywhere. Sometimes we can hang it on the peg from which it emerged. (See my blog on respecting ideas.)
Other times that idea seems to have come from nowhere. Somehow, some way it was submerged in the subconscious waiting for the just-right moment to surface. Who can explain that process?
Write What You Know?
Ever hear the advice: Write what you know? (I never for a moment believed that statement – but I won’t go that direction just now. I’ll save it for a later post.) The saddest thing about this flippant piece of advice is this:
We don’t know what we know!
It’s true. We do not know all the thoughts and ideas that are stored away in the subconscious mind. (Check out this video on our storehouse of ideas.) The active, well-fed imagination revels in having an idea to work with. The interesting thing about the imagination – the more it’s used, the better it works. So give it lots to work with!
But now I’m moving out of my fire/fuel imagery. (We writers do love rabbit trails!)
Inspiration More Heralded
Unfortunately, inspiration is much more heralded than imagination when it comes to the writing process. Personally, I had rather have fire and need to search for a tinder box, than to have a pile of wood (wet wood perhaps?) and no spark or flame.
My story idea, conjured up by my imagination, may be inspired by an old familiar love song, a moonlit night, the softness of a baby’s face, a secluded stream trickling through a wooded vale, an individual whom I admire, or even one whom I do not admire. Inspiration can fan the flames and fuel my imagination, but inspiration will only take me so far. I want to cherish inspiration, but not bank on it. I will bank on a healthy imagination every time.
The two are then inextricably held together by discipline, hard work, and a deep understanding and appreciation for the techniques of the craft of novel writing. Think of how a burning log in the fireplace glows due to the heat of the fire within it. You cannot at that point separate the log from the fire, nor the fire from the log. The same applies when inspiration and imagination work together.
The Fire Will Go Out
How I pity the aspiring novelist who writes only when inspiration hits. That individual has a weak and much-neglected imagination. Sadly, the fire will go out.
Imagination is the essential ingredient. Maintain your imagination, feed it often, exercise it daily, and it will serve you well. When you do, inspiration will take its proper place and do exactly what it is designed to do – feed the fire.