John Rhys-Davies, perhaps best known for playing the dwarf “Gimly” in Lord of the Rings, had a repeating role years earlier on the television Star Trek spinoff, “Voyager,” as the holodeck recreation of Leonardo da Vinci.
In an issue called “Scorpion, Part I,” the captain of Voyager finds herself in a conundrum, and turns to this computer simulation of one of the greatest minds in history hoping for insight. In the midst of their conversation, da Vinci tells her:
Fiction writers pride themselves on their imaginations. It’s what we use to create the characters that exist on the page. But sometimes that imagination seems to fail us.
We come to the blank page with nothing, or perhaps we seek a solution to a particular plot problem and even though we go around and around it, we can’t seem to land on anything that works.
Sometimes this failure of imagination applies to our careers overall, as well. We may be going along, doing “all right,” but long for a way to reach readers without burning out on marketing. Or maybe we wish we could figure out a way to find more time to work on the projects we love, while still balancing a full-time job and three kids.
Where are we to find answers when our own imaginations fail us? Where is our “greater imagination?”
Adults Need to Stimulate Their Imaginations
We’ve all heard the idea that we lose touch with our imaginations as we grow up. Whereas imagining things comes easily in childhood, it seems to take more effort as we get older.
There are many theories as to why this happens. Suffice to say that as adults, we need to make a point of stimulating our imaginations so that they work harder for us.
Particularly when we are pursuing creative careers or want to be more creative in our daily lives, we need our imaginations to be operating at optimal levels to give us the answers we seek.
“How much does a lack of imagination limit our adult lives?” writes inventor and technologist Christopher Stanton. “It does so to a tragic extent.”
Indeed, we’re learning more and more that imagination is key to success in today’s world.
“Imagination is a creative power that is necessary for inventing an instrument, designing a dress or a house, painting a picture or writing a book,” says Remez Sasson, founder of Success Consciousness. “The creative power of imagination has an important role in the achievement of success in any field. What we imagine with faith and feelings comes into being. It is the important ingredient of creative visualization, positive thinking and affirmations.”
For a writer, imagination is critical for our work and our ability to make decisions that take us to ever-higher levels in our careers.
“Imagination is a very, very powerful thing,” says singer/songwriter Glen Hansard. “It literally invents the path before you.”
“Without imagination,” says author and speaker Kent Healy, “we embark on a dangerous course of stagnation because knowledge in isolation only reproduces past results…. Repetition is certainly useful to a degree, but action without innovation eventually becomes frivolous and unfulfilling.”
All well and good, but if you’re in a dry spell, you need to seek out that greater imagination Voyager’s da Vinci was talking about. Here are five ways to do that.
5 Ways to Jumpstart Your Imagination
1. Hit the art museum.
Whether you peruse the paintings in person or online, stimulating your visual senses can help bring your imagination to life.
Artist and educator Denise M. Cassano does an exercise with her students use Winslow Homer’s painting, The Gulf Stream.
She asks students to carefully observe the painting, noting any particular shapes, patterns, or textures, and determining what they represent. She asks them to imagine living in the picture. What would they see, smell, hear?
She then asks them to think about the story taking place in the painting. What happened? What may happen as a result in the future? What does it all mean? She then has them describe their interpretations in writing, or write a story based on the image.
According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “Great writers are great observers. They consider the world around them, notice overlooked details, and make connections. Looking carefully at art helps us to develop these observation skills. Art encourages us to slow down, look closely, and reflect on what we see.”
In essence, you are seeking out the greater imagination of the artist to help stimulate your own creative thoughts. Depending on the story you’re working on, you’re likely to make unique connections between the visuals and what’s happening concerning your story.
2. Read poetry.
Yeats and Rumi are two of my favorites, and I’ve been getting into the rhythms of Shelley lately. Poetry offers us a different way of looking at words that can help us get the imagination going again.
A 2013 study found that the brain responds differently to poetry than to prose. When reading it, we activate brain regions associated with introspection—the perfect way to gain entrance into our own imaginations.
Depending on the power of the reading material—whether poetry or prose—writing can arouse several regions of the brain that respond to music. But poetry was found particularly to engage the right side of the brain—the more “creative” side.
Says writer and editor Tania Strauss, “Even if poetry ultimately isn’t your thing (though I think poetry can be anybody’s thing, once they stop being so scared of it), you’ll be amazed at what it can teach you about being a writer.”
3. Restrict yourself.
Studies have shown something that tends to strike most of us as counterintuitive—restriction encourages creativity.
In other words, if you’re struggling with a piece of writing, get a fresh page and allow yourself only 100 words to summarize what you want to have happen in the scene. If you’re not sure yet, give yourself 500 words to explore the issue. If a character seems vague on the page, give yourself 250 words to describe him or her—no more.
Such self-imposed restrictions have shown to help encourage your imagination. Your brain is limited to a certain space, and can focus more clearly on the possibilities in that space, as opposed to a situation in which an unending number of possibilities stretch out before you and your brain have to waste a bunch of energy analyzing and discarding the worthless ones.
Carmel Hagen, CEO of Sweet Revenge Sugar Company, says that working with the opposite of a blank slate often opens the door to increasingly imaginative ideas.
Some possibilities: What sort of tweets might your character write? (Restricting you to 140 characters.) What might your character’s headstone say? What is your plot in three words? How would your story change if it was science fiction? How would it stay the same?
Try restricting your point of view to someone other than your protagonist. Borrow his or her imagination for a moment. What would he have to say about your story? How does she envision her future?
4. Create some distance between you and your project.
Most of us know that if we’re struggling, it’s good to get away for a bit, go for a walk, clean the house, or do something else to get our minds off it. Usually some of our best ideas occur while we’re doing something fairly mindless.
But this idea is a little different. We’re talking about psychological distance, or “zooming out” from your project in your mind. Time travel is one way to do this.
In a 2004 study, for instance, researchers found that when participants thought about what their lives would be like a year from now, they were more insightful and generated more creative solutions to problems than those who were limited to thinking about what their lives would be like the next day.
Thinking about how your story may play out if you set it 100 years in the future—or the past—can help cue your mind to think more abstractly.
A 2009 study found that thinking about the source of your task as being distant had a direct effect on creative thinking. According to researchers, “when the creative task is portrayed as originating from a far rather than close location, participants provide more creative responses and perform better on a problem-solving task that requires creative insight.”
How can we apply this distant thinking to a writing project? Try to place yourself in a distant location. If you were vacationing in Japan, for example, how might you approach this problem? What if you were imprisoned somewhere with nothing but bread and water and a wooden bench to sleep on?
You can also take your story to somewhere far distant from its current setting, to see if that may jostle some other ideas loose. Try borrowing the imagination of someone who lives a long ways away from you. How might someone living in Iceland see your story? Or someone in a busy China city?
Let your mind bounce around to different locations. Imagine reading your story at these locations, and what the responses might be.
5. Start over again.
Studies have shown that spending time re-conceptualizing a problem is beneficial. In other words, before jumping to the solution, think again about your problem, but try to think about it in a different way.
Let’s say you’re struggling with the ending of your short story. You think the problem is that you need to come up with something that resonates emotionally with the reader. So you focus on ways to pack an emotional punch into your final paragraph.
What if you look at the problem in a different way? Let’s say you regroup and look at your ending more in terms of how well it resonates with your theme. What is the theme of your short story? What is it really trying to say? Once you’ve determined that, try again to create an ending that fits with that theme, and it may resonate emotionally, as well.
Whatever your problem is—plot, character development, pacing, etc.—try to look at it from another angle. Ask different questions. You can do this with career choices, as well. Let’s say you’re struggling with whether to self-publish your next book.
Instead of asking, “Should I self-publish?”, ask instead, “Which choice fits better with where I see myself in five years?” That will help you not only reframe the problem, but gain some distance from it, as well—both techniques to stimulate imagination.
How do you jumpstart your imagination when you’re stuck?
Zeman, Adam, et al., “By Heart An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2013; 20(9-10):132-158(27), http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/imp/jcs/2013/00000020/F0020009/art00008.
Forster, Jens, et al., “Temporal Construal Effects on Abstract and Contact Thinking: Consequences for Insight and Creative Cognition,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, August 2004; 87(2):177-189, http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168.
Lile Jia, et al., “Lessons from a Faraway land: The effect of spatial distance on creative cognition,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, September 2005; 45(5):1127-1131, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103109001267.
Csikszentmihalyi M, Getzels JW, “Discovery-oriented behavior and the originality of creative products: a study with artists,” J Pers Soc Psychol, July 1971; 19(1):47-52, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/5558339.
Winslow Homer: Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1906, via Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Winslow_Homer_-_Gulf_Stream.jpg.