We hear or read the same advice over and over: In order to write about anything, especially if it doesn’t exist in the real world, it is necessary first to imagine that thing, to form a picture of it in the mind.

I is for imagination.

The definition given in Webster’s Universal Encyclopedic Dictionary (2002 edition) for the verb imagine is “to form a mental picture of something.” So far, so good. Nothing wrong with making mental pictures, and it can be a lot of fun. After all, for most humans, sight is the primary way we acquire information about the world, so it stands to reason that we’d use it a lot when being creative, too. However, it isn’t necessary to form that mental image in order to create something, nor is it necessary in order to write about the thing created.

I know that a person can write about things that don’t even exist in the real world without ever having a mental image of those things. I know because I see it happen all the time: Due to a head injury in his youth, my twin literally cannot imagine things. This is not to say he cannot create, invent, make up, etc. But he doesn’t get mental images. Sometimes, because he wants to know what a thing looks like, he draws a picture of it. (He’s a pretty good artist, too. Remember that computer image of the Betula in my B post? He did that.) For the most part, though, he uses words to describe to himself what things look like. Seems to me that this can actually be an advantage for him as a writer, because it means he already has the habit of using words instead of pictures in his head, so there’s no need for a translation program, so to speak. I, on the other hand, sometimes have the problem of knowing what things are like but not knowing how to put that knowledge into words.

It’s a flaw in the English language, I think, that we don’t have a word for what we actually mean by imagination that doesn’t contain the word image as its root, because it does make people think that the mental image is essential and all-important.

What about you, O Reader of my blog? Do you prefer actual pictures-in-the-mind when “imagining” things to write about or otherwise do creative stuff with, or do you use another method? What works best for you? Is there something you wish you could “imagine” better/more clearly?


About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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2 Responses to I

  1. Cindy says:

    That is really a fascinating consideration, to not be able to picture something in your head. But then, how can you draw a picture of something you’re not looking at …. I guess it makes sense if you think that you are just having the picture form with no expectation of what it will look like. I am considering this as an artist, as I often try to create what is in my head, and it doesn’t always come out the way I imagined it. That could be quite freeing, really, to just let it happen. Less frustration maybe 🙂


  2. A thoughtful post! For me, inspiration can be triggered by any of my senses–a picture, an experience, a sound, a smell, or the feel of something–any of these can evoke an idea or turn a scene in my mind. It’s funny that I never thought of imagination working differently for other creative people.


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