Friday, March 16, 2007

Inspiration, ideas, and imagination

Sunday Scribbling’s prompt this week is: Inspiration.

Merriam-Webster says inspiration is:
1 a : a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation b : the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions c : the act of influencing or suggesting opinions
2 : the act of drawing in; specifically : the drawing of air into the lungs
3 a : the quality or state of being inspired b : something that is inspired "a scheme that was pure inspiration"
4 : an inspiring agent or influence

It’s a little odd to me that the last meaning listed here is the one that gets used most in ordinary conversation. Usually when people ask about inspiration, it’s a tactful way of posing the dreaded question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” (Barry Longyear still has the best answer to that. If you haven’t read “It Came From Schenectady”, go get it.)

Howso be it... Beginning writers are commonly told: “Write what you know.” “Draw on your own experience.” That’s where you’re supposed to get your ideas. It’s a good place to start; but is that where you should stop?

I grew up reading almost entirely fiction, mostly SF and fantasy. Fiction, by definition, is things that have never happened, that no-one has ever experienced. However, much fiction deals with “realistic” events, i.e. events similar to real ones. SF and fantasy, by contrast, deal with events that are unlike any that have ever actually happened. These genres call on the author to use imagination more than experience.

What’s it like to walk on Mars? Nobody knows, although these days you can make a fairly well-informed guess. You can read the accounts of the astronauts who landed on the Moon. You can study Martian geology and weather data; there are maps and pictures you can look at. But what would it feel like? You can’t know. You can only imagine.

Not to say you should throw out experience as if it were just another soap flake in the dirty bathwater. Kim Stanley Robinson’s very fine Red Mars is a human story at bottom; it’s as much about the interactions of a set of strong personalities and their respective political and social baggages as it is about Life On Another Planet. The love affairs, squabbles, and ideological disagreements among the First Hundred humans on Mars draw deeply on Robinson’s own experience of life and people, and without them, Red Mars would be only half the book it is. But without Mars, without Robinson's imagined Mars, there would be no book at all.

Experience is the ground under a writer’s feet; imagination is the writer’s wings. Experience is the station and imagination is the train. Experience is rock and imagination is the boundless ever-changing ocean. Start with experience and go someplace you haven’t been. Go there now. Go there tomorrow. Go there and stay for a while. Send the rest of us a postcard; we’ll call it a story or a poem or a novel or a painting or a song or whatever form it happens to take. The sky’s the limit.

Here’s the best part. The more you live, the more you can imagine—and you can always imagine things you haven’t seen or done. Your experience feeds your imagination, so your imagination expands constantly, like a balloon around your solid, lived, life. Life’s a good source for inspiration, but why limit yourself to looking there when you could be searching the whole vast airy space, the cathedral of the mind, the land of your imagination?

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