Deeply Imagine

As is sometimes the case, one of my students asked me a particularly good question. What surprised me is that it had to do with my blog. Don’t get me wrong, I know several of you check in often, but my students rarely do.

“So, Mr. Gansky,” she says. “You know how you said that we have to research things so we can write about them? Like, we have to experience them and stuff?”

While I don’t recall saying, “and stuff,” I’m willing to go along with her basic premise. “Of course,” I say.

“Well, what if it’s something we can’t really experience. Like, what if we want to write about skating on a lake or something?” This would be problematic, of course, because we live in the middle of the Mojave Desert, and while it often gets cold enough to snow, it’s never cold enough to freeze an entire lake. Even if it were, we have no lakes to freeze. “Or what if our character gets shot or something?”

The answer, I tell her, is simple. “You must fly to a frozen lake and skate. While, there, pay someone to shoot you, and take notes.”

Okay, I didn’t say that. I like my job. Instead, I conceded her point. There are some things we just can’t experience, and some things we just can’t ask about (i.e. “Excuse me, sir? Can you please explain to me in great detail what it’s like to be ravaged by prostate cancer? Speak slowly, if you would, so I can get it all down on my notepad”). We may lack the funds to travel to a particular location, and may not know anyone who lives anywhere near a frozen lake to call up.

In these instances, we must exercise our minds beyond our powers of perception. We must, as my old professor Bret Anthony Johnston would say, “Deeply imagine.”

Deeply imagining essentially means taking what we know of life and extrapolating what a particular experience might be like. For example, we may have never ice skated on a lake, but we’ve been outside in the cold. Now, how much colder would it be? Maybe we’ve never ice skated, but perhaps we’ve roller-bladed. How much faster would we be on ice? How much thinner is the blade, how much less is the friction? How much greater is the inertia? How much more does the wind push against our face? How much more do our cheeks sting with the cold? How much more do our various layers of clothes protect us against the stabbing chill?

We may never have been shot (hopefully, we never will—that’s an experience better left to deep imagining). But we have experienced pain. Maybe we’ve accidently stabbed ourselves with a pencil, or cut our fingers with a sharp knife while chopping celery. Take that pain and multiply it. Imagine the impact, the shock wearing off before the actual pain sets in. Then, imagine the next wave of shock—waves of stabbing, searing pain combined with the blood as it runs out of you. Imagine what it would be like to see all that blood and to know it all came from you. Have you ever given blood? How did you feel when you were done? Imagine if that blood, instead of going into a bag, went on the floor in front of you.

The point is this—live life closely. Experience everything you can, and the things you can’t, deeply imagine. It is easier to do this when you have a wealth of similar experiences that you can draw on and manipulate. Our imaginations are immense, boundless even. But the power of the combination of our imaginations and real, physical, sensory experiences is unparalleled. Use these skills to live life, and to capture it on the page.

2 thoughts on “Deeply Imagine”

  • Great post. Too many writers don’t spend enough time just imagining. I’d add that you can – in the case of imagining getting shot – take a shooting class. Easier to imagine once you feel the recoil and see the hole in the target. And there’s often someone around who’s seen it (ex-soldier, cop, etc). It ain’t the movies (none of that “oh, they winged me” and keep going). When someone gets shot, they go down.

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