The Oxford English dictionary defines imagination as “the faculty or action of forming ideas, images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” I define imagination as, “the ability to make shit up.” I’ve never encountered problems in this department. If you ask any one of the mostly engineers who constitute my immediate family they’ll tell you, “Jan’s a champion exaggerator.” I usually correct them, “it’s not exaggeration,” I say, “it’s an overleaping imagination I’ve been blessed with. Look how I’ve turned it into a lucrative career.” I place a lot of stress on the word lucrative. Despite what I’ve told them, I’m not above a spot of exaggeration.
It wasn’t always inevitable that I’d turn out imaginative. I was born in 1980, in Ballymena, which was, at the time Paisley-central, born into a family of rural, conservative, Presbyterian engineers with roots in the Brethren. It was hardly the Bloomsbury Set. Two artistic constants ran through my early life. The odd episode of Inspector Morse, where I encountered for the first time, heady concepts like Shakespeare, Wagner and drinking wine with one’s evening meal, and The Reader’s Digest Compendium of Country and Western Hits, which my father played on rotation during car journeys. I’m not sure whether, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden” counts as early artistic influence. But that was it for me. Morse and Country Gospel. Everything else I had to imagine.
And that’s what I did. Not to come across all Roald Dahl on you, but every child is born with a wonderful, unlimited, logic-defying imagination. Most children’s imaginations begin to diminish long before they hit adulthood. The modern imagination often falls victim to over stimulation. Too much screen time seems to be shrinking our children’s ability to dream. My imagination certainly wasn’t over-stimulated but it was, perhaps, a dangerous thing, to leave a whimsical child with so much time on her hands. I spent huge swathes of my childhood, sitting through Presbyterian church services, moulding my daydreams around the bloodthirsty stories of the Old Testament and the terrifying beasts of Revelation. I recorded my earliest scribblings in the language I knew best, the rhythmical swagger of the King James and the Old Hymn writers. The tighter the theology, the longer the sermon, the more my imagination seemed to soar.
I also read prolifically. By the age of eight, I’d consumed every book in the children’s section. This was hardly surprising seeing as I was utilising the entire family’s library tickets. There was nothing suitable left to read so I read unsuitable books. Thomas Hardy. Wuthering Heights. Dickens. Sherlock Holmes, which was like a gateway drug to the other, more bloody experiences on offer in the crime fiction section. Before I turned nine I was regularly committing murders, under the careful tutelage of Agatha Christie. And when I say, I was committing murder, embezzlement, adultery, and all sorts of other heinous acts I didn’t entirely understand, I mean, I really was, because an unfettered imagination, can actually lift a child and place it in a situation they’ve no direct experience of.
Margaret Atwood writes of experiencing this same displacing of reality when she first began reading. “Because none of my relatives were people I could actually see, my own grandmothers were no more and no less mythological than Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, and perhaps this had something to do with my eventual writing life – the inability to distinguish between the real and the imagined, or rather the attitude that what we consider real is also imagined: every life lived is also an inner life, a created life.” There is reality and then there is how we perceive reality. For those of us with overleaping imaginations, the line is often quite blurred.
I work with people who are living with dementia. It’s not always the case, but for many individuals there is a stage in the illness, where loss of inhibition and cognitive confusion allow them to tell stories with a completely unfettered imagination. They can’t remember where the line between reality and feelings falls and what emerges from such conversations, though sometimes distressing for loved ones, is also full of creative potential. A few months back, I met a lady named Isabel. “I’m very pleased to meet you,” she said. “My name’s Mars Bar, but you can call me Mars.” She completely believed this was her name. It was a group session, there wasn’t time to ask, “where did you get such an unusual name from?” but I came away from that conversation inspired by Isabel’s imagination. It was childlike in the very best sense.
Which brings me to my recent dealings with writers and imagination. It’s not been such a heartening experience. This year I’ve facilitated a lot of creative writing workshops, and while I acknowledge that writing realistic fiction also requires a certain amount of imagination, I was a little depressed by how many students struggled to “make shit up.” Most people produced slightly-amended accounts of incidents which had happened to them. Or somebody they knew off Twitter. When I asked them to dip, albeit briefly, into the realms of something a little more speculative, most students froze or went puce and couldn’t think of anything. This concerned me a little. What had happened to all these, mostly youngish, writers? Where had their imaginations gone? Had they not been exposed to enough episodes of Morse and Calvinist theology?
When I teach writing workshops in primary schools I always explain that the imagination is just another muscle. It needs constant exercise or it’ll grow rusty and stiff. I tell the kids that reading is good for their imagination and daydreaming and being incredibly nosy, asking the kind of questions which infuriate adults. But really the best way to ensure an imagination stays match-fit is to use it every single day. In 2015 my imagination was stuck. I don’t like to use the term writer’s block. As Anne Lamott explains in Bird by Bird, writers who get stuck usually feel less constipated and more like they’re completely empty, of all ideas. I forced my imagination back into gear. I wrote a story on a postcard every day for 365 days and posted them to friends. (Yes I have 365 friends, though some are very small children. Babies even.) I promised them stories as a kind of insurance policy so I wouldn’t back out.
It was hell for the first month. Like returning to the gym after Christmas. By February it felt like a rhythm, by April my imagination was seeing stories everywhere. When I got to December 31stand ended the project, it genuinely felt like a loss. My imagination was at peak fitness. I had mad ideas for stories, dozens of them, there weren’t enough hours in the week to write them all up. I get the same sense of frenetic imaginative energy when Ray Bradbury writes, “every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.” When your imagination’s not feeling overdrawn, it is much easier to be a writer. Writers can’t write if they don’t have any ideas, and we know from the OED that ideas are intrinsically linked to the imagination.
So, let’s address that favourite of all questions posed to writers. More often rolled out than “how long did it take you to write this book?” More insightful than “do you write in a notebook or on a laptop?” There’s not a writer this side of eternity who hasn’t been asked, “where do you get your ideas from?” Who knows what the questioners actually want to hear. Perhaps they’re looking for a specific website, or a shop in South Belfast where ideas can be ordered to fit any genre or subject. They certainly always look disappointed when the writer mumbles something about, life or people, books they’ve read or earwigging in the line at Tesco (which is my standard response). Readers seem to prefer research and real life experience, translated into fiction. They seem faintly distrustful when I say, “I just made my story up.” Ursula K. Le Guin claims that “American writers tend to value factuality over invention, reality over imagination. They’re uncomfortable with the fictivity of fiction.” I’ve certainly experienced this myself. My first novel was set in a nursing home, it briefly included a character with Alzheimer’s. My grandmother had recently passed away with the illness. Almost every reviewer pointed out that my book was heavily influenced by my grandmother’s experience. It wasn’t. It was mostly about flying children, a disappearing boy and a talking cat. All of which I’ve had no personal experience of. Yet. Reviewers, critics and readers usually don’t like their fiction to be too made up.
Where does that leave my favourite writers? Flannery O’Connor, who spent most of her life sick in bed, with Lupus, looking out a window at her peacocks; Emily Dickinson, who was almost reclusive at the end; and the poor Brontës in that forlorn vicarage, enjoying very few experiences of anything at all. I’d suggest they took the tiny bit of experience they were given, their limited lives and circumstances, and they used their imagination to write the most marvellously fanciful things. The poet Emily Hasler puts it like this: “Dedicate your life to the twin and warring gods of precision and wild abandon.” What a glorious way of understanding where fiction comes from. It’s like something which might have come from Emily’s own pen – either Dickinson, or Brontë. Experience plus imagination leads to fiction. We can only really imagine with the building blocks of experience we already have lodged in our heads, or as the narrator of Russell Hoban’s sublimely imaginative Riddley Walker says, “you cant make up nothing in your head moren you can make up what you see.” Yes, I can write about things I’ve never experienced – childbirth for example – but I must utilise a comparative experience such as having a root canal. Then I filter this experience through the lens of my imagination so it rings true to the circumstances I’m describing.
The origin of the word imagination is rooted to the verb imaginary: “to picture oneself.” This suggests that imagination at its best is a kind of extreme empathy, an ability to place your own experience in a different context and consider the implications. I like this idea. It means that for us writers, no experience, no matter how difficult or mundane, is wasted. Imagination plus my repeated experiences of Connswater Tesco, where I once saw a man purchase a six pack of WKD balanced atop a large box of Pampers nappies, meant that for a short period in 2016, almost all my magic realism was set in and inspired by the world’s crappiest supermarket.
Patricia Highsmith writes: “I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me.” Me too, Patricia. If you weren’t already dead, I’d introduce you to Connswater Tesco. Thoreau says it in a slightly more poetic way, adding some nice earthy images – it is Thoreau after all – “know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still.” This process sounds a little like cannibalism but I understand the sentiment. Ideas don’t come from websites or mail order catalogues. They don’t even come from reading other writers, though I thoroughly advocate for this kind of behaviour. Ideas come from the marrow of your own experience. It is imagination that fleshes them out and develops them into actual stories.
Highsmith again. She writes: “ideas come to me like birds that I see in the corner of my eye.” Mostly this is how I experience the genesis of an idea. It’s an itch in the back of my imagination. It’s a tiny, fluttery concept that won’t leave me be. There’s something vital about paying attention to an idea. About corralling the imagination so that although the first blast of revelation might be similar to the landmine experience so graphically described by Ray Bradbury, the actual development of an idea is more deliberate and contained. I particularly love the section in The Little Prince where the fox and the little prince encounter each other from a distance. The fox says, “I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstanding. But you will sit a little closer to me every day.” This is such a powerful image of how the fledgling idea is eventually fully realised. The idea must be tamed with patience and, usually, a great deal of time.
The poet Vona Groarke describes the process as “something that rises by stealth or magic from stillness and silence.” I’ve always found this to be the case with my stories. Some of them require months, years even, of gestation. I’ll turn a baby idea round my head until it feels solid enough to write into. It’s always a great mystery how some small fragment of overheard conversation or a moment glimpsed briefly, from a moving bus, can grow legs and, with time, become a fully-fledged story. I often feel like I’m drunk behind the wheel when I’m transporting an idea from the beginning of a story to the end. It takes on a life of its own. I’m simply the vehicle it’s flowing through, never quite knowing where it might insist upon travelling next. EL Doctorow understood this. He said that, “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I’m in the middle of a novel at the minute. I’m doing my best to let my imagination take the lead, inching forward one chapter at a time, not fully understanding where it will end. I’m trying to remain present in the moment of it. Each idea requires room to breathe, to grow, to find its own particular rhythm. The imagination cannot be rushed or forced. On good writing days the ideas are working with me, coming at a manageable pace, translating themselves into words and scenes. On the worst days my ideas are like those fancy goldfish which swell to meet the confines of their tank. The loudest ideas, the ones I find shiniest and most intriguing tempt me in to giving them free reign and take over, leaving other less-assuming, yet probably more engaging ideas, suffocated on the side lines. As a writer, I’m slowly learning how to hold my imagination: loose enough to let the good ideas flourish, tightly enough to ensure my writing has shape, clarity and some degree of pace. It’s a delicate balance.
Virginia Woolf talks about how an emotion will create a wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit the emotion, and in writing one has to recapture this. This too, is an excellent way of describing the relationship between imagination and the creative act. With time, and practice, words can usually be found to pin down that little bird flitting about in the corner of your eye. You’ll be able to capture its essence, its motivation and beauty, without compromising one iota of the wild freedom which attracted you to it. This requires a good eye, and an enormous amount of patience. I can’t speak for other writers but I can give you a little insight into what this process looks like for me.
Firstly, try to separate yourself from my story. Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “to reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” It’s easier said than done. Sometimes your own preoccupations will feel like an enormous lump sitting in the middle of the page and you couldn’t feel more bound to what you’re writing. Wrestle with this. Give your imagination some space. Let it go scampering, like an unleashed dog, off into odd and potentially dangerous places. Now’s not the time to reel it in. Push the limits off your plot, your characters, your metaphors, until they’re almost fit to break. This is the point where your writing will start to develop a life of its own. You’ll read your own words back and marvel at your genius, though you’ve no recollection of actually writing them. I have produced no children, but perhaps this is the same feeling parents experience when watching their child win the sack race or the Pulitzer Prize. Here is a thing that came out of me and is also separate from me. Isn’t it marvellous? Nadine Gordimer says that “the tension between standing apart and being fully involved is what makes a writer.”
Learn how to believe your own nonsense. I struggle enormously with the suspension of disbelief. Theatre is hard for me. When somebody makes a cup of tea and no tea comes out of the kettle, well, that’s it. I can’t believe anything else that’s taking place on stage. Don’t even get me started on musicals. All that singing and dancing. It just doesn’t ring true. And yet, I’ve no problem entering into George Saunders’ mad world of ghosts, androids and talking objects, nor have I ever struggled with Donald Antrim’s absurdism or Vonnegut’s aliens or Karen Russell’s magical way of exploring contemporary America. I, as the reader, enter into these huge leaps of imagination, because I can tell the writer absolutely believes what they’re writing. You cannot approach your imagination with a lukewarm attitude. You must be all in. You need to be utterly convinced by your own artifice or you simply won’t convince anyone else.
All good magic realists are realists first. It took me a long time to realise this. If you can’t convince your reader that a character is believable as a person, they certainly won’t believe you when that same character starts floating round the room. We’re returning here to the initial idea of imagination and experience, as twin, and equally essential components of fiction. A reader will only understand your made-up shit, in light of their more realistic experiences of the world, or as André Gide more eloquently puts it, “the most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.” Take Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. It’s an incredible dystopian exploration of humanity’s first attempts to colonise other planets. There are some really outlandish experiences recounted in this novel, but it’s very much couched in terms of the familiar: there’s a relationship at the heart of the story and much talk of practicalities such as transport, food, religion and entertainment. Framing the more speculative elements of the book within a language and context most readers are familiar with helps to ensure the magical elements read true. For this very reason, most of my magic realism is set against the backdrop of East Belfast, a landscape I know really well. Again and again I’ve had readers admit they were lured in by the descriptions of familiar places and people and hardly even noticed when mad stuff started to happen.
Finally, can I offer three very practical tips, which have helped me when my imagination gets rusty? Firstly, I go to sleep thinking about an idea. I’ve no notion how the subconscious works but you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve woken up having dreamt an entirely new approach to a story. I’ve read a lot of Leonora Carrington recently and noticed how her dream life impacted her art and writing and I’ve come to believe my unconscious mind is just another tool to bring to the table when it comes to writing.
I also walk a lot. Round East Belfast, usually in the rain, with my parka hood up so I look utterly unapproachable to my neighbours. There’s something about being in transit which allows my mind to shrug off the responsibilities associated with both where I’m coming from and where I’m going to. I’ve found that imagination comes easiest to me in these liminal, in-between places: airport lounges, trains, the Aircoach to Dublin. Perhaps it’s related to the idea I mentioned earlier of being able to step outside yourself and leave your identity as a writer at the door so that the story can take over. I’m unknown when I travel and, for me, this unselfconscious state of being seems to give my stories more room to breathe.
Finally, I choose to write in terrible places. My entire first novel was written between the café in Tesco’s and a coffee island in an almost defunct shopping mall. I like to write in places where there’s very little for my imagination to hook on to. I’ve always thought this was because I’m an easily distracted sort of person. Recently I read this quote by Annie Dillard, “appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark,” and it sounded so convincingly poetic, I now tell people I’m writing in a corner of Starbucks, with my face turned to the wall, so my imagination can meet my memory in the dark. They usually seem impressed by this.
I’d like to conclude by focusing briefly on the imagination within the literary landscape I hail from. If I’ve learnt nothing else from Flannery O’Connor, I’ve learnt to be acutely aware of how place impacts an artist’s way of imagining the world. I recently attended a panel discussion called The Protestant Imagination and Writing. The evening raised a few questions for me. We were treated to eight scenes lifted from plays written in Northern Ireland during the last sixty years. You’ll not be astounded to hear only two out of eight works were written by women. But you may be a little more surprised when I tell you that, with the exception of Stewart Parker’s excellent Pentecost all the writing showcased was realist, linear, plot-driven, and set in working-class Belfast with a thematic focus on issues associated with the Troubles. The Protestantism was very apparent. The imagination, not so much.
When I first began publishing magic realism set in Northern Ireland, most readers responded similarly. “Hmmm,” they’d say, “it’s a bit weird isn’t it? I mean, I like it. But what exactly is it?” I soon came to understand why they were confused. There’s almost no precedent for non-realist prose written in Northern Ireland in the last half century. Now, I know you’ll all come rushing up afterwards to list works of speculative Northern Irish fiction. There are some. Brian Moore dabbled in what I’d call Magic Realism and I’m very thankful he did. The Emperor of Ice Cream has long since been a touchstone text for me. There are aspects of non-linear writing and even absurdism in some of Anna Burns work and recently speculative fiction is looking a lot healthier in the North. But I’ve found myself wondering why, in a community steeped in myth and the oral tradition, our prose fiction, is on the whole, so very realistic. I’ve come up with a few thoughts though I’ve drawn no definite conclusions. I’m afraid to delve too deeply into this realm for fear it might induce a Phd.
Firstly and perhaps most understandably I wonder if we, in the North, writing in turbulent times were afraid of mishandling or making light of extremely heavy subject matter. Perhaps we felt an earnest, factual voice was required for such serious material. I don’t doubt for a moment that a subject as difficult and dreadful as the Troubles should be explored with the deepest sensitivity. However, why is there such a strong tradition of magic realism springing up in response to equally difficult situations in Latin America and Eastern Europe? How, if you follow this logic through, did Kurt Vonnegut get away with writing something as irreverent and incredibly moving as Slaughterhouse Five when his subject matter was so deeply harrowing? What about Catch 22? Albert Camus wrote that “art advances between two chasms, which are frivolity and propaganda.” A serious message does not necessarily require a serious tone. It’s my experience that good writing, in any tone or genre, can be used effectively to explore the most sensitive of topics. “Take care of the writing,” says Margaret Atwood, “and the social relevance will take care of itself.”
Perhaps we also fell victim to the mistaken assumption that the fantastical is a childish form of expression, for most of us first fell in love with non-realist writing when we were children, and our imaginations were yet to be constrained by logical thought. This is simply another form of the serious writing for serious times argument. It persists still. There is a tendency within the literary world to assume anything aside from modern realism is simply genre writing. That it’s not to be taken as seriously. This is, I would argue, a form of snobbishness which does little to encourage those readers and writers, like me, who suffer from overleaping imaginations. “To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think imitation is superior to invention. In mean moments I have wondered if this unstated, but widely accepted, highly puritanical proposition is related to the recent popularity of the memoir and the personal essay.” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that almost fifty years ago. It’s interesting that the memoir and personal essay are on the rise again.
Then there is the question of fear. Northern Ireland was no stranger to fear during the period I’m referring to. To fully engage the imagination in an act of creativity is to lift the lid of possibility and allow just about anything to happen. There’s something reassuring about realism. It has to stick to the rules of time and gravity and truthfulness. Perhaps the period could not cope with any more uncertainty. The wildness of speculative fiction can be viewed as escapism or it can also be seen as something out of control and potentially threatening. Following this thought through I’d also like to suggest the Northern Irish literary canon was deeply influenced by a strong religious presence during this period. I grew up rural Presbyterian. I can’t speak for other communities, though I’ve heard friends tell similar stories on both sides of the fence. In my neck of the woods, it was considered sinful to make things up. The second commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” covered everything from idolatrous statues to science fiction. We were brought up to be deeply distrustful of anything fabricated, for making something up, even a story, was essentially a lie. Though this kind of corrupted theology is finally beginning to lose its hold in the North, I do strongly believe it’s part of the reason why I grew up with so few examples of non-realist Northern Irish fiction to encourage my own fledgling attempts. It would have been wonderful to discover a Gabriel García Márquez hailing from Larne, or Cullybackey’s own version of Vonnegut, but they simply didn’t exist.
Ray Bradbury, he of the explosive ideas, once wrote, “you must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” The history of my home place is so steeped in the darkest of realities, I’ve often turned to fiction and the writing of fiction as a means of escape. Making up shit has helped me make sense of the very real and tangible problems I encounter. My imagination exists to explore different possibilities. It helps me see the world from others’ perspectives. It encourages me to creatively reimagine the situations I find myself in. It allows me to hope at a point in history when hopelessness seems like the prevailing trend. As a writer I use my imagination to offer these same experiences to my readers. It is a privilege. It is a responsibility. I don’t know how to write in any other way.
Jan Carson’s second novel, The Fire Starters, has just been published by Doubleday Ireland. The Dublin launch is taking place in The Gutter Bookshop on Tuesday April 9th at 6.30pm. This is the text of a talk commissioned by Words Ireland, which was delivered at the Bray Literary Festival in September 2018.