I recommend a recent opinion column in the New York Times by Timothy Williams, a professor of Logic at Oxford University, on the value of the imagination.
“Imagine being a slave in ancient Rome. Now remember being one. The second task, unlike the first, is crazy. If, as I’m guessing, you never were a slave in ancient Rome, it follows that you can’t remember being one — but you can still let your imagination rip. With a bit of effort one can even imagine the impossible, such as discovering that Dick Cheney and Madonna are really the same person. It sounds like a platitude that fiction is the realm of imagination, fact the realm of knowledge.
Why did humans evolve the capacity to imagine alternatives to reality? Was story-telling in prehistoric times like the peacock’s tail, of no direct practical use but a good way of attracting a mate? It kept Scheherazade alive through those one thousand and one nights — in the story.”
No, says Williams, imagination is of major evolutionary importance.
“By enabling you to imagine all sorts of scenarios, it alerts you to dangers and opportunities. You come across a cave. You imagine wintering there with a warm fire — opportunity. You imagine a bear waking up inside — danger. Having imagined possibilities, you can take account of them in contingency planning. If a bear is in the cave, how do you deal with it? If you winter there, what do you do for food and drink?
This is why what we do as writers is important.
Donald Justice, a great poet and my great teacher, once wrote an essay on rhyme — a great mnemonic device, but only if it connects to truth. Justice pointed out that “Thirty days hath September/April, June and November” has helped multitudes of people remember which months have which number of days. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight/Red sky at morning, sailors take warning” has helped people remember what to look for in trying to make an informed guess about approaching weather conditions.
But no one would remember these rhymes if they weren’t true — if September did not have thirty days, or if a red sky at night did not mean, more often than otherwise, a good day for a picnic on the horizon.
But don’t forget that as writers, we can use our imaginative powers to extend what people can imagine. Harold Bloom, in his fascinating book Shakespeare: THe Invention of the Human, asserts that Shakespeare’s imaginative insights made us understand who we are, and he has a point. The movie Shakespeare in Love helps us imagine what it must have been like to see Romeo and Juliet performed for the first time, and even today, we can watch it or read it, and use our imaginations to understand the pull and the danger of passionate love.
So…is it really so impossible to imagine that Dick Cheney and Madonna are the same person? Is it useful — or is it like “red sky at night” if it wasn’t a sailor’s delight?
Well, several generations have learned, by exercise of imagination, that, difficult though it may be to believe, Clark Kent and Superman are the same person, and through that exercise of imagination we’ve learned that people aren’t always what they seem, that women (like Lois) may not recognize their ideal man when he’s right in front of them, and that like Clark, sometimes it can be enough to know who you are, even if no one else does.
Imagine that Dick Cheney and Madonna are the same person? You’re imagining what it’s like to have an in-your-face personality, to make as many enemies as friends, to act with confidence and self-assurance. And by imagining those qualities in two such different contexts, you can learn somethng about yourself — which of those qualities you want to emulate, what they’ll get you, what they’ll cost you. And you can learn, by imagining, what to do when you encounter that personality.
Now imagine that you’re the writer creating a Madonna whose secret identity is Dick Cheney. Imagine what kind of gift you’re giving to the world. It’s a real one, and it’s one that only a writer can give.