"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
Who among us has not met up with self-doubt while writing?
I don't know what form your self-doubt takes. For some, it's a vague paralysis that creeps over the mind. For others it may be articulated in nauseating detail. Whatever the form, self-doubt is usually a variation of "I can't do this," or "There's no point."
Where do all those doubts come from?
Well, feeling doubt while we're in the process of creating makes a peculiar kind of sense. After all, knowledge brings confidence, but creativity is all about touching the /un/known. Knowledge asserts "what's so." It is defined as "the fact or state of knowing; the body of facts accumulated by humankind." (Webster) Imagination, on the other hand, is "the act or power of forming mental images of what is not present; the act or power of creating new ideas." (Webster)
The act or power of creating. That sounds good.
Images of what is not present. A bit more iffy.
And it's within that iffy zone that we find opportunities to create. In that same zone, doubt thumps its chest and utters convincing challenges. It's the nature of the beast, I'm afraid.
Here's a true story, analogous to the journey many writers take.
When I was seventeen, I went to college in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had lived the previous six years in humid Wisconsin, at sea level. Santa Fe sits at seven thousand feet, and the desert dust makes sunsets that fill the sky, not only in the west but around the compass.
Behind the college was a small mountain named Monte Sol, part of the Sangre de Cristo range. Uninhabited.
I wasn't the only one dazzled by the New Mexico sunsets. A group of us decided it would be a great experience to see the sunset from the summit of Monte Sol. One bright afternoon, several classmates and I set out, climbing the steep makeshift trail to the top.
The sunset was even more resplendent than we'd imagined it would be. A glorious blend of red, orange, and gold. As the last rays grew dim, it suddenly occurred to us that after sunset, night falls! We still needed to get /down/ the mountain. And not a flashlight among us.
In fading twilight, we found the dirt path. This was not Wisconsin dirt, which holds together well; this was dry, sandy dirt, which slips away, especially where the path is steep. We scrambled along, clutching at scrubby pinon trees, while night thickened. Soon we couldn't see the trail at all, couldn't even see our own feet in the darkness.
After a long bumbling trek and many scratches and scrapes, we made it back to the college grounds.
To me, that journey up and down the mountain is relevant to the writer's path. Imagination inspires us, and so we act. It's easy, in the beginning, to be so struck by a glowing vision that the thought of darkness is forgotten. We begin boldly, climbing high on the strength of the vision. Then we encounter darkness, and we must stumble through it.
As writers, we wouldn't want to miss out on the darkness altogether, any more than we would want to skip the light of day. Louis Armstrong, child of poverty and prostitution, wrote /What a Wonderful World./ He sang of the "bright blessed day." He also sang "the dark, sacred night." Why did Armstrong call the dark sacred? Maybe he was referring to the way that heartache and hard times can deepen creative urges. Or maybe he was talking about the unknown.
That unknown is mysterious. It resists control, cannot be contained by formulae, refuses to be ruled. By its nature, it does not engender confidence. But it also bestows the sort of wisdom that guides our footsteps when knowledge cannot help.
Imagination isn't limited by what is present, leading the way instead to what is not. This has profound implications for writers. For example, when I'm confronted by a plot problem, I no longer try to figure it out according to what I know. What's missing is what I /don't /know. When I let that be so, my imagination goes into the unknown and provides a new perspective.
I don't have anything against knowledge. Bringing a flashlight along doesn't hurt, nor does having the skill to use one. But when knowledge takes over the whole mind, we run the risk of getting set in our ideas and becoming trapped in the territory we have already explored.
When stumbling through darkness, unable to see, it's tempting to try to use knowledge when imagination is what's called for. It's especially tempting when the darkness is deep. At that point it's hard to believe that what we /don't/ know yet will help us the most.
This essay adapted from a portion of the book Wild Ink: How to Write Fiction for Young Adults, and printed with permission from Cottonwood Press. www.cottonwoodpress.com