Imagination and Inspiration – Which is What, and Works How?

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.

Be A NovelistIn 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 Be A Novelistwriting 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.

Be A Novelist

4 thoughts on “Imagination and Inspiration – Which is What, and Works How?

  1. Joe Pineda

    Great point about noveling. I’ve learned to identify inspiration, usually in the form of what ifs. Then imagination takes over and comes up with answers and scenarios.

    I like it better that way because then I don’t need to stick to genres. I only choose the one that makes sense at that time.

  2. potofcallaloo

    Great piece Norma Jean. Two things stood out for me – firstly the importance of imagination in writing and I really appreciated that being someone who is always imagining!
    Secondly, I found it most interesting when you said you didn’t agree with the statement that you should ‘write what you know.’ I had read so many books etc on how to write a novel and that was the one of the things that stood out for me. So when I started my novel it’s what I set out to do. Your statement had me shocked for a while, until I read the following one that said ‘ we don’t know what we know.’ Great point! because I agree with that totally though I never thought of it in relation to the writing advice. Thanks for the insight! 🙂

  3. Norma Jean Lutz

    So appreciate your comment, Alisha. The longer we live the more time we’ve had to “soak” up things around us. And the more we soak, the more we become aware of people, surroundings, circumstances, what we like, what we hate, and on and on. It’s all tucked neatly away in the subconscious mind. How can one ever know what all is stored there? Hence my statement: “we don’t know what we know.” But writing a novel can often bring “stuff” to the surface.


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