The holiday season is a time for parties, especially the sort of parties that people throw in order to introduce interesting friends and neighbors to other interesting friends and neighbors they haven’t met but might like. It’s a great way to meet interesting people, and the first thing most of them ask is, “So, what do you do?”
The thing I’ve noticed, over the years, is just how many people react to my declaration that I’m a writer with a rather wistful statement that boils down to “I’ve always wanted to write, but I don’t have any imagination.”
It took me a long time to decide that maybe they were right…but not for the reasons they think. Their problem is indeed a failure of imagination, but it comes a whole lot earlier than the point at which they try to think up a story. They simply can’t imagine themselves – or people like them – being writers, and so they never really try to become one.
Occasionally, I run across someone for whom it’s not so much that they can’t imagine themselves being a writer as that they’ve never seen stories of the sort they want to write, and thus they assume either that a) nobody will buy the kind of stories they want to write, or b) there is something wrong about the stories they want to write – they’re not good because they don’t follow the patterns and tropes of the fiction they’ve read or seen on TV and movies.
What these folks are doing is telling themselves a story: that because they have never seen X before – whether X is someone like them who writes or whether X is a murder mystery with magic set in historically accurate Han Dynasty China – they can’t or shouldn’t try to do it themselves.
Sometimes, folks like this can be inspired by suddenly finding out that someone like them – a homebody, a lawyer, a high school dropout, a person of color, an eighty-year-old ex-wrestler – has successfully written (or written the kind of story they’re dying to write). More often, though, I meet them again two or six or ten years later and discover that they still are convinced they can’t do it, despite whatever counter-examples I’ve provided (and I have quite a collection of them).
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our dreams are enormously powerful – far more powerful than the stories that come from outside. And the longer we’ve been telling them, the more powerful they become. I know people who persevered through decades of outside discouragement and apparent failure because they told themselves the story that they were writers; because they had a powerful vision of themselves as someone-who-writes; because they told themselves that there were other people out there wanting to read the stories they wanted to write, the ones they couldn’t find on the current bookshelves or on TV.
Not all of them have been successful, even by their own definitions (which do not always include publication or making a living writing as measures of “success”). A lot of them have, though, and the jury’s still out on the rest of them. The ones who don’t try at all are guaranteed never to make it (whatever “making it” means to them).
You don’t have to believe you will be a success in order to write. You don’t even have to believe that you could be. You just have to believe that you, or someone like you, can sit down with a notebook or at a computer and make up stuff that somebody else might want to read; that you, or someone like you, can learn the craft part of writing and rewriting so as to make your stories more effective at doing whatever it is you want them to do until you’re satisfied with them; that even if there are only three other people in the entire world who will like the particular, peculiar fiction you have to tell, it’s worth your time and effort to put them down in pixels for them and for you; and that all this is something you want to put time and effort into doing.
The so-called “writer’s imagination” starts by imagining oneself as a writer.