Having just finished NaNoWriMo and the survived the first round of holiday nuttiness, I thought I’d share something that I learned. (Relearned, actually, because I’ve kind of known this all along. The past month has just given me a brutal refresher course.) There are things out there that will actively suck your imagination clean out of your head and make it nearly impossible to get it back. These things do so much damage to your imagination that they might as well just shoot it and leave it for dead.
Imagination is a fragile thing. The ability to see things that don’t exist, to visualize worlds that no one has ever visited, to put your characters in unique situations and understand how they will respond, to make connections where none exist (or should exist) requires an open and active mind. Imagination cannot function in the presence of constant distractions. It requires quiet time to do its best work. It also requires proper nutrition, meaning that you should feed your imagination with quality items like good books, documentaries, excellent movies, and new experiences. You can’t feed your imagination a steady diet of junk, negativity, and other crap and expect it to respond with anything other than, “What do you want?”
And that’s what the following things are. (For the most part. There are exceptions.) They are the junk and garbage that gunk up your imagination. Take in too much and your imagination will just curl up and die from lack of proper nutrition. While it may be possible to revive a starved imagination, it takes time and it’s much more difficult than just keeping it healthy in the first place. (Just like anything else: Prevention is easier than treatment.)
So what are these things that can kill your imagination? Four in particular trouble me. (You may have others.)
Cell phones. Cell phones have their uses, but you’ve got to be careful because they can suck you into a well of addiction and it happens so fast you don’t know what hit you. (I think I was one of the last people in the world to get a smart phone and I thought it wouldn’t happen to me, that I was above that mindless addiction. Turns out, that little gizmo grabbed me just as fast as everyone else.) You think you can handle it. Just one more check of your email. Just one more quick game of your current poison of choice. Just one more text exchange with your friend. Before you know it, that device is ruling your life and you need the constant stimulation. But this constant stimulation takes your imagination away from those quiet times when it can do its best work. The fact that you’re always looking down at that screen means that you’re missing a lot of the exciting, imagination-inspiring things happening in the world.
If you’re old enough to remember life without cell phones, do you remember when you’d have to sit and wait for an appointment, or for your car to be fixed? You sat there and thought, or maybe you read a book. You looked around at the people around you. Maybe you even talked to a couple of them and learned something interesting about them. You watched what was going on in the world. That was good for your imagination, even though you probably didn’t realize it. Now, you probably sit and play games, text, watch the latest cat video, or engage in some other mindless nonsense. You deprive your imagination of those found moments in the day when it can observe and think, and instead you pump it full of electronic distraction. You might as well just grab your imagination around the throat and choke the life right out of it.
The internet/social media. These aren’t much different than cell phones, except they more actively intrude on your writing time. That computer on your desk is great for composing imaginative work, but it’s also great for serving up a bunch of crap that actively works against your best intentions. How many times have you hopped on the internet for a quick fact check, only to find yourself still there three hours later without a clue as to what you’ve been doing? All the endless yammering of social media, the news sites, the silly videos, and the other distractions on the internet all conspire to rob your imagination of the peace and quiet that it needs.
After a rough few months, I realized that I needed to seriously cut down on my use of social media and the internet. It wasn’t just my imagination that was taking a beating. I was also starting to have other weird happenings in my brain. Things are improving, but there are days where I spend more time than I intend on the internet and I end up paying for it for a couple of days afterwards. My imagination just lies there, refusing to get it up. It’s like it’s thinking, “Why bother? You’re just going to crap me up again.” And I can’t blame it. Piling all that junk on top of it hurts it and it’s not eager to get up and have it happen again.
TV. Okay, there are times where TV can actually be helpful. Documentaries about your areas of interest and movies/shows in your genre can actually feed your imagination and help you make all kinds of connections that you didn’t know were out there. And every now and then something mindless can give your brain a break and help you relax. Everything else, though? Imagination killers. The news, daytime TV, reality TV, celebrity shows, and most prime time nonsense does nothing for you except drag your brain down into the sewer. The news is so terrible it can drive you to depression or irrational fears. Most shows have all the nutritional value for your imagination of a Twinkie. Maybe not even that. Some shows even seem to actively reduce your intelligence. All of them push the rich, inner life of the mind aside and fill it with junk.
I try not to watch much TV. This past month, however, I’ve watched way more than usual. Between holiday visits/events where TV is the primary entertainment, appointments in places where the TV blares non-stop, and needing (wanting) to escape some of the stress of NaNo, I found myself in front of a TV way too often. Sadly, there was a corresponding drop in my imagination. After watching a lot of TV, I couldn’t get my mind back on my projects and when I did write, I found that my work wasn’t as rich or interesting. I had trouble thinking of plot elements and creating things that were unique. It was like my brain was having to push through a layer of muck in order to work. The results were depressing and derivative.
Worse, it wasn’t like my imagination bounced back right after watching a lot of TV. I noticed that TV’s negative effect lingered for a few days. I needed to spend a couple of days with the TV off to get my imagination firing again. Unfortunately, as soon as I’d find myself imagining again, we’d be off to another event or I’d want a little downtime and the next thing you know I’d have watched way too much. In an act of rebellion, my poor imagination hitched a bus out of town. I’m hoping it returns. Soon.
Other people. There’s nothing like the holidays to remind an introvert why she prefers to spend time away from other people. Especially negative people. You know who they are. They’re the people who tell you you aren’t writing “real” books and who wonder when you’re going to get a “real job.” They’re the people who tell you that they read your latest book or article and hated it. They’re the people who resent your success and don’t think “you of all people” deserve it. (Bonus points if they also tell you that you got lucky.) If they’re not hating on you and your work, they’re just depressing to be around. They’re never happy. The world is out to get them. They complain about the unfairness of it all. Ugh.
Not that everything has to be perfect all of the time, but your imagination greatly prefers people who are engaging, positive, and helpful. Too much negativity makes your imagination shut down. It’s thinking, “Well, nothing I can do is ever going to be good enough to please these people, so why try?” If you can surround yourself with positive people who genuinely want the best for you, who believe in your work, and who have smart, funny, and interesting things to talk about, your imagination will thank you. Try to avoid the negativity junkies like the plague.
A writer needs an active and healthy imagination to succeed. Without it, the work is boring and unoriginal. Your imagination requires care, though. You can’t just push it aside, drown it in negativity, deprive it of interesting things, constantly distract it, or ignore it altogether and expect it to want to do anything for you. Just like any employee, it wants to feel valued and nurtured. It needs you to take care of it and to allow it time and space to do its best work. If you mistreat it, at best it’ll say, “Who cares?” when you call on it. At worst it will hitch that bus out of town and you’ll have to suffer without it, then spend a ton of time tracking it down and convincing it to come home and give you another chance. And hope that it’s willing to forgive you.