I’ve often used Mitchell’s idea in writer-in-classroom appearances. “Suppose that happened to you,” I’d say, pointing at some bright-looking lad. “Yeah, you in the green shirt. You wake up tomorrow morning with long hair growing all over your body. What would that do to your life?”
The kids and I would play with the idea. Would the Fabulous Furry Freak join the circus, or buy a gross of scissors? Hide his condition, or flaunt it? Could he do without clothes for the rest of his life? Would he ever find a wife? Would his children be hairy or smooth?
That’s how the imagination works, I’d explain. The imagination says, “What if – ?” It takes real things, and combines them in new and surprising ways. That’s how stories and paintings and songs begin. That’s what a writer does.
A writer thinks, What if there were a school for wizards? What would it be like to be a student there? What if the student had some ordinary name, like – let’s see – maybe Harry Potter.
Or maybe the writer thinks, what if a young man fell in love with the daughter of his father’s worst enemy? That’s the seed of Romeo and Juliet. Or, what if the gods told a man his destiny – and he tried to avoid it? That’s the kernel of MacBeth and Oedipus Rex.
But it all starts with “What if – ?”
One time, a librarian who had watched me do this classroom routine said to me, “I don’t know how you do that.”
“Do what?” I said.
“Think about things that way,” he said. “If I found myself thinking about hair growing where it shouldn’t, or something like that, I’d get worried. I’d think there was something wrong with me. I’d make myself stop thinking about it.”
Of course you would, I told him. Research shows that well over 90% of pre-school children have vivid creative imaginations. With people of 30, the proportion is 2%. We all start with powerful imaginations – but they are squashed flat by education and convention. We develop a corps of internal thought police which banish irregular thoughts from our minds.
We learn to see “creative people” like artists and inventors as remarkable. They have such brilliant imaginations. No: they have just have undamaged imaginations. But we did too, once, before the thought police took up their stations.
The thought police go off duty at night, however, and our submerged imaginations run rampant as we dream. In dreams we are wildly imaginative, improper, disrespectful of physical and other laws. Lurid images follow rollicking episodes, terrifying and bewildering. We boldly go where no mind has gone before.
And then we wake up. The thought police come back on shift. We remember almost nothing of our adventures.
Nevertheless, our repressed imaginations serve us faithfully every day – and we rarely notice. “Action begins with fantasy,” wrote the libertarian educator John Holt. “We are very unlikely to do something new, difficult, and demanding until after we have spent some time imagining or dreaming ourselves doing it.”
What if I married that alluring person? What if I had an MBA? What if I found a better way to market lobsters, or software, or sewing machines? What if the things I dream about were real? Could they be real? Why not?
That’s how books and films begin – but it’s also how families and businesses and careers and gardens begin. What if? Why not?
The essential partner of imagination is courage. The unfettered imagination takes unpredictable directions, and it does not lie. It tells us what’s going on in our deepest selves, down where desire and memory dance a hot tango with chemistry and instinct. We fear what it may reveal.
My librarian friend was afraid of his own thoughts. That’s pathetic, but it’s absolutely commonplace. We fear that the imagination will tell us things we really don’t want to know about ourselves – which means that in our hearts, we don’t know or accept ourselves.
How can we make the most of ourselves if we don’t even know who we are?
The thought police stand guard against unruly flights of fancy. It takes courage to overrule them. But without the freedom to imagine, we can never discover great solutions, moral insights, profitable ideas, innovative strategies.
“Imagination,” said Albert Einstein, “is more important than knowledge.” Your own imagination won’t turn you into Shakespeare or Einstein – but it can make you a more responsive spouse, a more creative parent, a more effective manager, a more valuable colleague.
Just listen — bravely and honestly — to the impish voice within you.
“What if?” it whispers. “Why not?”