I think imagination is like a muscle we all have…one we are born with and utilize as children all the time, but some of us neglect to use that muscle, and therefore it withers away, leaving our minds dependent upon other people’s imagination to “show us something good.” Some of us are addicted to working out that muscle, like gym rats trying to perfect our quads. And some of us seemingly have no other muscles than that of the “imagination” type.
I think a lot of people under-estimate the breadth and depth of their own imaginative powers, but if you have ANY kind of creative outlet, such as cooking , quilting, or woodworking, or if your job is to build something…from houses to websites…you are relying on that power. You can see something in your mind, you can be inspired by raw materials, and turn those things into something amazing. The more you use this creative power, the more ideas you will have.
And that is where this “power of imagination” can become a problem, though, for some writers.
1. You may see something ever so vividly in your mind, but you have a problem translating those images onto paper in such a way as to do them justice or before they float away into just a distant dream you vaguely remember.
2. You may feel the need to block out each character’s every step, identify each piece of clothing they are wearing, what they had for breakfast lunch and dinner each day of the week and otherwise get bogged down in the details.
3. You may have too many different ideas that:
a. keep you from focusing on the project at hand and you wind up with 17 half-written stories, or
b. tempt you to shove them all into a single project, taking your story down endlessly branching (and implausible) rabbitholes that you may never be able to conclude (or tie together believably).
I will admit to commiting all of the above offenses from time to time, but my primary problem is #3. There is just too much stuff flying around in my head, and not nearly enough hours in the day to capture them all.
So, the question at hand is how to make this strength work for us? I want to flex this muscle, not have my muscle flex me.
My solution…and this might not work for everyone, but it is the only one that even comes close to capturing all those ideas in my head…is to keep a giant running list in a spreadsheet. I KNOW! The epitome of nerdiness!
But this is what I do: I have a master spreadsheet for all of these ideas. I have named it “Work You Must Do Someday.” When I think of a new story, I create a tab in the spreadsheet just for that story, and I start listing as many details as I can for a character or setting or plot or whatever. Sometimes I just think of writing prompts, so I have a tab just for those. Sometimes, when I have a big idea, I start using all of those neat little cells to block out chapters or I start color-coding to depict the progression of a plot. Sometimes I do some real “writing” if there is some “perfect opening line” that just occured to me. I think I have a tab called “Amazing Titles” where I squirrel away just titles that have occurred to me.
By doing this, I feel like I get to exercise that imaginative muscle in something of a controlled way. I get the swirl out of my head and I don’t lose my thoughts. Also, I don’t get so involved that I can’t keep working on whatever my “current project” might be, and I can always come back later and add things…as much or as little as I want. And when I am ready to come back to it, for some stories, I already have a rough outline and the backbones of some characters developed.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier!
Of course, I am not always near a computer when inspiration strikes, so I still have notebooks and scraps of paper stuck in my purse, but when I clean out my purse, I put those scribbly, scrappy ideas in the spreadsheet. If I write a significant portion of some story in a notebook, I make a note in the spreadsheet which notebook I was writing in (I have probably six or seven different notebooks I write in, depending on where I am and what is in my purse at the moment). This can save a lot of time when I am ready to write some more…less searching around in every notebook.
It’s basic organization, right? It’s not that hard. And maybe this won’t work for you…maybe you could use a notebook instead of a spreadsheet. If I had every wall of my house as a chalkboard, I’d probably have a wall for each story. Now that I am thinking about it, it seems like I might have done this in my college days with index cards and a coupon organizer. You know…whatever works.
Just make sure you can find your notes again! Try to email any documents/spreadsheets to yourself so you always have it a backup…or save it in multiple places…just in case something crashes or gets lost. If you do a lot of writing by hand…do your best to get it captured “electronically” so you won’t fall prey to lost work if someone in your household helpfully throws it away, thinking it was trash, or heaven forbid, some weather event sweeps it away from it’s nice, dry bookshelf/desk drawer/backpack.
Of course, people say, when you lose something, you can just create it again since you’ve done it once before. These people are obviously not writers, and very well might be idiots. But, let’s not hold that against them. Your imagination can conjure new ideas and thoughts and words, but very rarely in the same way you had done last week/month/year. As someone who has lost three chapters of a book due to laptop death, a final paper for a graduate class due to power failure and mysteriously faulty aut0-save, most of my poetry and various other writings when I absent-mindedly left a pin drive at a Kinkos, and two hand-written chapters of a different book when someone stole my purse…you have to not only use your muscles to get the ideas out of your head, you also have to use them to keep them safe and within your grasp.
I mourn for everyone who was affected by Hurricane Sandy, and surely there are more important things in life than writing, but I hope that most of you writers were able to save your work, that it will be there when the power comes back on, and that if you have lost some things, that your imagination muscles can be pumped up to create something even better than before. God bless, and…