Poets and philosophers have been enraptured by the imagination since the beginning of time. “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination,” romantic poet John Keats once wrote. For playwright George Barnard Shaw, imagination was the beginning of creation, the first step to manifesting our deepest desires in the physical, material world: “You imagine what you desire. You will what you imagine. And at last, you create what you will.” Founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, thought the imagination was a gift generously bestowed upon us by the gods. “Imagination is the true fire stolen from heaven to animate this cold creature of clay,” she wrote in characteristically evocative prose.
But no words on the imagination startle with more truth than Einstein’s famous assertion that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” In our era of content-driven education with its mechanical memorization and high-stakes standardized tests, how can this be true? The word “imagination” itself carries a magical— if childlike quality— as if it only belonged in rainbow-colored kindergarten classrooms and sandboxes. No, forget inspiration and invention, ingenuity and curiosity. Knowing the exact years of WWI and the number of elements on the periodic table—we’ve been told— is more important. Rather than encourage students to imagine, we cram their brains with useless facts. So obsessed are we with knowing that we devotedly read What Your Sixth Grader Should Know and reduce what could be a consciousness-raising curriculum to a list of spirit-squashing state standards.
Yet despite our education system’s emphasis on knowledge, there can be no innovation without imagination. If knowledge is composed of the things we know for sure, imagination permits us to play with possibilities, to explore the untrodden terrain of new ideas. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Einstein’s theory of relativity. No feat in the arts or sciences can be accomplished without the ability to see and believe in something that is not yet there.
In her timeless classic on art and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, the same trove that gave us art as infection and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, Brenda Ueland suggests the imagination is a glorious gateway to the divine. If the atheist/agnostic among us shudder at her use of “God” and “Holy Ghost,” we can exchange her religious language for more secular terms. God, Universe, Spirit, Fate. Whatever we call it, the fact remains: when we create, we connect to something magnificently larger than ourselves. In splendidly simple prose, Ueland argues— much like her idol Romantic poet and fellow champion of the creative spirit William Blake— that we should create for the whole of our limited time on Earth. Why? Because more than our capacity to reason, our imagination is what separates us from brutes:
“But the ardor for it [the imagination] is inhibited and dried up by many things; as I said, by criticism, self-doubt, duty, nervous fear which expresses itself in merely external action like running up and downstairs and scratching items off lists and thinking you are being efficient; by anxiety about making a living, by fear of not excelling.
Now this creative power I think is the Holy Ghost. My theology might not be very accurate but that is how I think of it. I know that William Blake called this creative power the Imagination and he said it was God.
Now Blake thought this creative power should be kept alive in all people for all their lives. And so do I. Why? Because it is life itself. It is the Spirit. In fact it is the only important thing about us. The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.”
If creative expression is the portal to a more exalted life, one question remains: how do we keep the imaginative impulse alive? Ueland offers a simple solution: use it. Unfortunately in our efficiency-obsessed era, we find it hard to waste time on such “frivolous” pursuits. After all, wouldn’t it be more productive to go grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner than compose a love song? What’s the point of writing a 5-act play or perfecting a Beethoven concerto? Why bother painting a vase of sunflowers or a wheat field at dawn? Why devote time to our art when there are more serious things to be done?
Though there are always to-do lists and time sheets, we must create— it’s what we’re here to do. To disregard the muse and refuse ourselves the God-given gift of creation, to deny ourselves what we most want is an unforgivable betrayal of the self. Sadly, in our sensible world of should’s and have to’s, it’s common to sacrifice our wants:
“But if we are women we think it is more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or play the piano. And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and play the violin and burst into tears at the sunset.
They do not know, as Blake did, that this is a fearful sin against themselves. They would be much greater now, more full of light and power, if they had really written the sonnets and played the fiddle and wept over the sunsets, as they wanted to.”
If You Want to Write is a rousing reminder to forget duty and obligation and honor our wants, whether we want to write a novel or learn to cook Szechuan. For more invaluable wisdom on creativity and art, read The Artist’s Way, Bird by Bird, and Becoming a Writer.