Putting my imagination to work

This post, and the one following it on Going Deeper at 12:45, are part of a mini two-part series exploring Christianity and imagination. What does it mean to have a Christian imagination? What part does imagination play in our lives and in our faith? Since we’re over here at Ben Trube, Writer this morning, let’s talk about the kind of imagination I deal with on pretty much a day to day basis, telling stories.

Imagination is a key component of writing. My pastor defines imagination as the ability to see a reality different from the one we can observe. That pretty much sums up writing, creating characters, situations, even settings that have no equivalent in the real world. For writing imagination takes two very different forms. The first is inspiration, my first glimpse of the world or story I’m trying to create. This often comes from my mind wandering, or connecting two disparate thoughts from days apart. The second is application and definition, taking scenes and connecting them together, further defining character traits and arcs. One is hazy like a dream, the other is very much like reality and requires a similar level of detail.

You might say the inspiration phase is a lot like daydreaming. For me it can really happen anytime, though it is more likely in periods of repetitive activity, like my daily commute or the shower. One thought leads to another leads to another. A phrase that was used a lot in the Bible studies I was a member of in college was “thought life”. In that case it primarily was referring to sexuality, to lustful thoughts from a idle mind. But the idea can apply to any thought that takes our mind off God, off the way he’d like us to live, to look at the world.

But I’ve never been really able to look at my “thought life” in such a fearful way. I’m aware of the lustful aspects of myself, as I trust every man is, but when I’m trying to think of a good story, I don’t immediately think about whether it is in keeping with glorifying God. Here’s how I look at it, having the thought is not such a bad thing, but committing certain ideas to paper is something else entirely.

I think even authors who don’t have an angel sitting on their shoulder think about this kind of thing. Do I really want this idea to be associated with my body of work? What kind of impact will my words have on the thoughts and minds of others? We’re all capable of coming up with some truly wonderful, and truly terrible ideas. Having bad ideas is natural, but engaging with them may not be. The more time we spend with an idea, the more it comes to dominate our way of thinking. This can happen for good ideas and for bad. A good idea gives birth to the next idea and the next.

I don’t think of my writing as having a specific “missional” aspect. Something about applying that word to my work feels unnatural, forced and tacky. The purpose of my work, other than to entertain, is to explore if for no one else but myself some of the mysteries of life, and some of the specific technological and sociological challenges we’ll face in the coming decades.

Boy that sounds lofty!

Okay, I’ll say it better. I think about a lot of things. I read technology magazines, listen to the news, read fiction, play bad video games and read graphic novels. I like everybody else am trying to figure out how to be a good husband, a good parent, a good adult, and yes a writer people actually want to read. Sometimes exploring these ideas in stories helps me. And sometimes I write something down just to riff (like the story I’m planning for Jo’s Bradbury 52 (a ghost, a school and a breakfast indeed)).

As I talked about in one of my early posts in this blog, I try to write from a Christian viewpoint, but I’m not a Christian writer. I try to write about life as I see it, and a little bit of how it can be. Right now I’ve got a main character who is suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress (a condition I gave him after a couple of revisions 🙂 ). Throughout this book, and into the next one I’m trying to explore aspects of denial, trauma, vengeance, justice, friendship and yes God. This means I have to be okay with my character starting in a messy place, and ending in maybe a better one that takes a while and several different roads to get to. The temptation is to fix everything too quickly, to not give proper weight to circumstances and feelings. As a writer you can throw a character into a situation, and then not be sure you should have, using the next chapters to try to pull him out. That wouldn’t do the story justice, though, and it doesn’t fit with my experience of life or of God.

Christianity is not a quick fix. It’s not an “accept Jesus and everything will always be awesome” kind of deal. It takes work. I’m all for being able to picture eternal life, a new heaven and a new earth and a new body. Faith takes imagination. But in my experience you also have to be able to relate to people’s needs as they are, the things they worry about on a day to day basis. And maybe because I’m a futuristic science-fiction writer, get them thinking about a few things they might be dealing with in the future.

Imagination is an essential tool of the writer. It’s a weapon that can be used well or haphazardly. Imagination doesn’t do us much good without something to steer it, otherwise all stories would be a series of random thoughts and images (not unlike this blog post 🙂 ).

How do you think about your imagination?

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