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Writing About the Power of Imagination

By 12/06/2008writing

Writing about RowlingThe process of writing is of course inextricably involved with the use of imagination, we imagine ourselves into being people we are not, living in situations in which we have never been.

But sometimes this power alone is not enough, we need to figure out, to research, to find out what we don’t know. Sometimes we need to read like crazy on something, forget what we have read, put it into the compost heap, and then let our imagination go to work. For some of my stories, this is the stage at which I am, and it can be very frustrating. But it is also necessary.

At other times, we need to use our imagination to turn our experience into empathy. I have been a disillusioned fan of Rowling for quite a while now, because some of the Harry Potter series could have used much more editing than she allowed. But when I read some of her commencement address at Harvard which also discusses empathy and imagination, I felt some of my former respect trickle back. She says the following about the power of imagination and I find that I completely agree:

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places. Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • That was such a great speech. I even got choked up a few times.

  • damyantig says:

    Very true, Kym and Lofter.

    The last two lines summarize everything she says about imagination. I wish she wrote more, and in different genres.

  • Lofter says:

    I agree with Kym… her last two sentences tell the story. As for me, I can’t envision any kind of life without imagination, at least to some degree. And I would find it difficult to categorize too many people in such a way. I think everyone is imaginative – everyone has fantasies. Many just choose to keep them tucked away, safe from the rigors of reality. A safe harbor, where they can rest. Where they can hide from their fears.

  • Kym says:

    I love that final statement of hers.

  • damyantig says:

    Lybl, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I am glad that there are people like you who agree on these points.

    Yes, she is quite a writer. I wish she had done a similar job on her book series. The Harry Potter books can be so much better than they are.

  • leafless says:

    I too agree with what she said. Quite a writer.

  • lybl says:

    I just watched the commencement speech myself earlier today. I found the whole of her talk to be very insightful.

    I also wrote about several of the main points which I identified with on my blog. And I agree with all that you’ve quoted her as saying here.

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