The 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.