Friday, December 10, 2010

How We Imagine the Real

Although the American Heritage Dictionary defines imagination as “the formation of a mental image of something that is neither perceived as real nor present to the senses,” my favorite poet, Wallace Stevens, has a completely different view. In his book of essays, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, Stevens maintains that “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” These words have followed me throughout my writing career and encouraged me to search out telling details and sensory stimuli that lend vitality to the products of my imagination and hopefully provide a rich and accessible experience for my readers.

In his poem Anecdote of the Jar Stevens shows us how powerful one “real” object can be in conveying an idea:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,

And sprawled around, no longer wild
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.

The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
In my mystery novel, THE LAST MATRYOSHKA, I use the nesting doll to symbolize how pieces of the past can gain power over time and come alive to motivate actions in the present—in this case the relentless pursuit and persecution of a man accused of committing a crime fifty years ago.

What powerful symbols have you recently employed in your writing to lend vitality to your imagination? I can’t wait to hear!


  1. I recently used the image of an impending hurricane as the center of an essay -- and as I wrote, I had to imagine what the hurricane really symbolized to me. The symbolism actually changed several times as I went through different drafts, until I really hit upon what I wanted to say with the metaphor.

  2. @Faye - I'd love to read a few paragraphs of the metaphorical piece you refer too - please feel free to post!

  3. I am posting this comment on behalf of Anne Prather:
    Anne says, "I use material from my journals to fuel imagination and to flesh out my ideas with realistic detail. I keep three types of journal, a diary, a commonplace book, and an introspective journal. I've not been as faithful as I should be at these, but what I do in each contributes enormously to my writing. This November's novel uses blindness as a symbol of justice, intimacy, and goodness. In the novel, I imagine a society in which the blind comprise one-third to one-half of the population and so are very much integrated with their sighted counterparts.
    Your posts were excellent!"
    Anne Prather, Ph.D.

  4. Using the poet's tools, metaphor and simile, is as critical to good fiction as it is to good poetry. As FayRD commented above, using a violent storm to indicate a swirling internal tempest or a fireplace to indicate burning desire--blatant played off against subtle--can give your reader something extra they sometimes are only aware of subliminally. Joyce, being a poet, does this naturally in her novel, Ask the Dead which we have had the pleasure of publishing both in print and e-book format.

    Robert Brown, Publisher
    Ampichellis Ebooks
    Martin Brown Publishers

    7:51 AM

  5. Thank you Robert!
    I was honored yesterday to be quoted in a review of The Book of Symbols that touches on this very topic. (see 2nd paragraph) -

  6. Anonymous12:38 PM

    In The Belvedere Field I've used the intense heat of a very sultry summer to highlight the claustrophobic intensity of some of the key scenes.

  7. I just looked at this thread from a year ago and found Joyce's comment asking about the Hurricane piece. It's since been published and is online here: