Imagination

The first is that no one can write anything of significance—to themselves (and therefore, it follows, to anybody else)—unless imagination is allowed to play a major part in the process. Worlds and spaces in writing as art can't be made real without the imaginative play of the mind remembering, selecting, attending. Memory is often the primary source of imaginative experience. Not all memories stored away in the inaccessible filing-system of our ordinary minds attract the same level of attention. Some things stand out, stay with us consciously or half-consciously. Here, in the introduction to an essay on Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, I explain the process of retrieval:

As a poet and teacher of creative writing, at some point I ask my students to retrieve from memory places, things, experiences or events which have become lodged in their imagination. Some things will have been stored at the back of their minds—something in childhood, something which might have happened only a week, a day, or even just hours before. There will be things that aren't just memory but which will have acquired a particular colour; an unusual resonance. Ordinary memory will have transferred certain impressions into imagination, and these will be part of ourselves as individuals, also of who we are as a culture. We might not know why these things are transferred, or why certain events feel so different. Knowing why isn't really the business. Writing about them, and making them real, is, however; and if attention is given to the imagination in this way, the idea is that it will collect more and more experiences, more and more significance will be available. The idea behind this method is a belief—that imagination acts as a shaping force, is more intelligent than our ordinary minds. Imagination is present in each one of us. It is what defines us as a species. To write, paint, or do whatever imagination offers, requires a kind of listening to its suggestions.

(Mills 2002:170)

Imagination, then, is the main directive. It selects; we follow. We may be led to illuminate worlds that are public in the media sense of the word—war, poverty, racism— or we may not. But unless we are actually driven to explore them, it's difficult to see how these can become imaginative spaces realised through an adequate state of attention. Imagination, starting with memory, does lead to a widening out beyond the confines of an inert privacy. Or we might say that personal meaning itself has been extended.

The second point asks the question: 'How do we know our world?' While technologies seem to expand our knowledge, we feel a growing mistrust about what we are told, what we are shown, what in fact is the case. Much of our seeing and knowing is second-hand, received by secondary means. In these conditions, validation through direct experience happens in isolation or by chance. This phenomenon has implications that go far beyond the issues of writing. To take the example of climate change: the problem is that when we come to know it directly, locally and personally, protest could be too late. Obvious, too, is the likelihood that so-called 'experience' can no longer be separated from secondary information. Such information—whether we call it news, science, rumour or myth—will always be there as background noise, distorting what we like to protect as our own subjective response.

The poet's view of Sandra Lee Scheuer will be, like all others, incomplete. Nothing can ever be a last word. People are complex. What is hidden? How do we know each other or ourselves? These are questions keenly felt in the work of contemporary writers. While the work of many writers explores this secondary position—control through media, the fictive as real—a parallel movement continues. Creative writing resists the cliché, rejects the sentimental, builds new links between self and world. So much writing continues to bring the localised and specific into focus.

The act of making alike, assimilation, might seem to be one aim of the writing process. Simile and metaphor, we might argue, are its basic devices—the art of seeing one thing in terms of another, fusing their identities, explicitly in a simile, implicitly in the case of metaphor. But to describe Alcatraz as a cubist painting, or say of the young guardsman that his 'declaration...flowered within her' is to enhance the actual difference between things compared, to reinforce our sense of their strange otherness and importance. Whenever we experience something in its full vividness, assimilation is forced into retreat. Art cultivates edge, contrast, and the respect for difference.

Experience beyond the personal range of the writer can still be felt—through imagination. Another of its attributes is the desire to reach and acknowledge as real other people's worlds. In poetry, for example, the use of a personae (see Chapter 3, p. 87) has helped to refashion our understanding of world events, bringing distant experiences up close. 'All night pitiless pilotless things go shrieking/above us somewhere', writes the

American poet Adrienne Rich, '.when fear vacuums out the streets/when the whole town flinches' (Rich, 2004:23).

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