Imagination as Escapism; Imagination as Exploration

May 20, 2013

I’ve always had an active imagination; I was the kid who could be left alone in my room for hours, totally immersed in whatever story I had concocted for my My Little Ponies. But when I went through some trauma in middle school, imagination filled a new role for me. Essentially, it allowed me to cope with a world that didn’t meet many of my needs, in which I didn’t feel like a whole person. There was something so complete and gratifying in the places I went in my imagination that I spent almost all my time there.

Life got better in high school and college, but by that time, the habit was firmly entrenched. I lived so many years with only one foot in the real world, the other always in an imaginary one. On a deep level, I was afraid to fully live my own life, because I thought that would weaken my connection to my imaginative one. I read The Picture of Dorian Gray around that time, and there’s a scene in which Dorian is turned off by his love interest, Sybil, because she no longer acts with such passion in the plays he watches. She confesses that, after she’s felt real love with him, play-acting at love is empty and meaningless. I never wanted my imagination to feel empty or meaningless, to feel any less real. So I guarded it viciously, and pushed away many experiences that might have pulled me away from it. In particular, I was reluctant about falling in love, afraid that the reality could never live up to the million ways I’d imagined and experienced it in my mind. How could I ever commit myself to just one lover, who got only me, when in my mind I got to experience it again and again from a hundred different perspectives? All, of course, while remaining perfectly safe.

My world was shattered again in 2006, and I realized then that something had to change. Living in my mind just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. It took me about a year to find a place of balance, where I could keep my feet firmly planted in my own life and still indulge the journeys of my mind. But then the big one came in 2010: I started a relationship with the man I would marry, and it was so scary and so wonderful and so exhilarating that I knew this was for real. I felt myself standing on that precipice, when you know your whole life is about to change.

During that time, what I’d feared about the tension between reality and imagination proved true–for a while. I was in love, I was obsessed, and it was hard for me to write about anything except him and what I was feeling. It was hard for me to immerse myself in writing fiction, to get lost in dreams that weren’t about us. My real life demanded more from me, and there was less for me to give my imagination; or, my imagination was co-opted by my real life and what I might make of it.

Now that I’ve been married for a little over a year, things are starting to settle. I remember that when I once expressed my fears about real life “ruining” my creative life, a friend of mine disagreed. She told me that real life could make your creative life even better by enriching your experiences. I wasn’t sure I believed her then, but I do now.

I love my real life most days, but my mind is still hungry to explore. And it wants to explore in much bigger ways than it did before. When I was younger, so much of my mind was filled with imagining things I’d never experienced–falling in love, kissing someone, having sex, seeing another country, seeing the ocean. Having experienced all those things hasn’t somehow made my imagination obsolete; it’s pushed it toward bigger questions, bigger explorations. I want to cram it full of history, theology, culture, and literature. I’ve always been curious, but feeling like I’ve got my own life figured out (for now!) has ignited that curiosity in a new way. A few nights ago, I went to see the new Star Trek movie with my husband and some of his friends. Although I was a fan of Star Trek when I was a teenager, it was because I was interested in the character relationships (and, admittedly, because so many Star Trek voices were featured on Gargoyles). This newest movie wasn’t great; it might have even veered toward downright bad. But it held my interest because I was fascinated by the idea of what it might feel like to be in space, that I was hungry for that vicarious exploration that I have neither the courage nor the means to ever explore in real life. The ocean captivates me in a similar way. So does God. These vast expanses that are so full of mystery that no amount of “real life” can ever close the case on them–at least, not my real life.

And I’ve learned that having real experiences doesn’t close of your imagination; it does feed it, just as my friend suspected. Experiences and learning and creating are addictive. They ignite the need for more experiences, more learning, more creativity, all the time.

Lately, I’ve started thinking about imaginative exploration in terms of attachment. Attachment theory shows that when an infant has a strong attachment to a caregiver, she is actually more capable of leaving that caregiver and exploring the world. What if this applies to flights of fancy as well as to meeting new people or applying for that job? Perhaps it’s because I feel so securely attached to my real life now, because I know that it’s here an it’s safe for me to come back to, that my mind can go further than it’s ever been able to go before.


My New Guitar — and the Importance of Writing it Down

May 13, 2013

Last night, my dad and my sister presented me with a new guitar they had made as a belated birthday present. My dad did the assembly and staining, and my sister did the woodburned artwork. The photos don’t do it justice, but she took kind of a “collage” approach, including images of many things that are important to my life — my pets, unicorns, books, and on the back, Rapunzel. Even my guitar is telling me there’s no excuse not to get back to writing that thing! (Well, except taking time to write about my guitar. That seems like a good excuse.)


The prince

After my family went home, I pulled out my old journal where I’d written songs back in 2003 – 2006. Paging through it, I liked seeing some of the songs I’d forgotten about. The notebook is sort of a time capsule of some of my most defining experiences while I lived in Duluth, and I was so glad I had written them down. Just seeing the lyrics in my messy handwriting brought me back to that huge apartment with the shiny linoleum floors, and all that sunlight coming in through the windows.

Dad, Krystl, me, and the guitar

But I was somewhat dismayed to find that, except in the earliest songs (incidentally, the ones that I don’t think are as good), I didn’t write down the chord progressions — just the lyrics. I remember that back when I used to play regularly, I had all the songs I’d written memorized, as well as a handful of songs I hadn’t written. So I  “assumed” I’d just always know my own music. I wish I hadn’t made that assumption! If only I had foreseen that, in the future, I’d go three years without even touching my guitar — but that one day I’d want to play those songs again, and share them with my husband. Now, I have to do my best to relearn the chords based on my memory of how the songs were supposed to sound, and I’m cursing my laziness in the midst of the initial creative bursts!

All of this drives home to me the importance of writing things down if we really want to hold onto them. Heck, it’s thanks to the written word that we’re able to know as much as we do know about the past, and historians often find themselves wishing our ancestors had bothered to write more. Another mistake I made was in not dating the songs. Although I have a rough idea about when they were written based on content, I wish I had the exact dates there, since, especially without the chords written down, they’re almost just glorified journal entries. Someday when I’m famous, my biographers are going to be frustrated by this lack of foresight on my part as they comb through my various written ephemera. 😉 (I just finished reading Lyndall Gordan’s absolutely amazing biography of Emily Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns, which includes the difficulty of dating some of Emily’s undated poetry and letters, which is why that detail stuck out — not because I’m so conceited that I think that’s actually going to be an issue, I swear.)

As a writer, the most important thing I can do is write. One of my pet peeves is people who think of themselves as writers because “they have their whole story all planned out in their heads.” That’s the easy part; you’re not a writer until you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Before that, all you’ve got is thoughts — and we’ve all got plenty of those.

I can at least be grateful that I wrote down as much as I did, and made tapes of the songs (somewhere) that I should be able to dig up and listen to for reference. So, now I have one more endeavor to add to my endless list of creative goals. When can I retire, again?

Creativity … Where Does it Come From? (Thanks, Dad)

February 11, 2013

Dad and the custom guitar.

For Christmas, my dad created a custom guitar shaped like a rifle for my brother-in-law to display in his gun shop. The custom guitar was a work of art in itself. But while he was building it, he took video and then edited a series of YouTube videos about the process. Although Dad was an “early adopter” of technology when I was a kid (we were one of the first families in town to own a VCR and video camera), after our first camcorder went kaput sometime in the 90s, he didn’t take any more video. So as I watched the videos he put together about the guitar creation process, I found myself marveling not so much at the problem-solving and creativity and skill needed to create the guitar (all of which are substantial), but the additional creativity and problem solving that went into making the videos.

Before now, my dad had never used video editing software. It wasn’t around the last time he worked with a camcorder. And I’ve worked enough (although still not much at all) with Windows MovieMaker to know that editing video is time consuming, slow work. I’ve often had ideas for videos that I’ve never followed through on, mostly because very little besides writing can motivate me to put in that kind of time and precision.

So I found myself wondering what inspired my dad to put in this kind of time. A desire to document and share his process, certainly, but considering how hard it is to “get noticed” on the Internet, I don’t think that was the main motivating factor. What struck me was that the main motivation behind the video series was simply the process of creation itself — the learning of something new, the puzzling out of how to make an idea into a reality.

And that’s when I realized how alike my dad and I are.

Watching the videos, I thought about the hours I’m putting into making a collection of storied Mix CDs that I’ll probably only ever share with one or two other people. I thought about the novels I’ve been writing since I was fifteen, and the fanfiction I wrote before that — before the Internet was widely accessible and before I knew there was actually a market for that kind of thing. I thought about the dozens of character journals I kept (and which now take up a whole drawer in my file cabinet) for over five years. And I realized that I had Dad to thank.

Despite growing up with him, I’d never before reflected on the impact his quiet creativity had on my own. I’d be more inclined to credit my sisters, for their example and their co-creativity, or my mom, with her hardcore support of imaginative play and creation. But all those years, there was my dad in the background, teaching himself to play guitar, building go-carts, and now, building guitars. All for the joy of the process, and, I think, for the satisfaction that comes from solving a puzzle.

I’m realizing more and more that what I love about writing is the satisfaction I feel deep in the heart of a project, when I feel myself finally able to work loose the knots at the heart of a creative work. My dad worked loose similar knots as he learned to edit video for the first time.

Like anything else, one can debate the impact of nature and nurture on the development of creativity and the expression of one’s self through a specific medium. Like most things, I’m sure the answer is a combination of both; I can certainly think of incidences and circumstances and people who “nurtured” my writing in one way or another throughout the years. But I don’t think I’ve fully appreciated until now what nature has gifted me with — a love of the process for its own sake that I now believe is a direct result of my dad’s genes. And for that, a thank you will never be enough.

Submission Opportunity: Writing about Mental Illness

May 25, 2009

My sister recently alerted me to this call for creative writing submissions around the theme of depression and mental illness:

The National Network of Depression Centers is seeking art for an exhibition at our NNDC Annual Conference September 28-29, 2009

The National Network of Depression Centers is seeking art for an exhibition at our NNDC Annual Conference September 28-29, 2009. This event focuses on the field of Psychiatry and simultaneously offers a platform for interaction of professionals from various fields.

This exhibition will focus on how art can be used as a resource for education and outreach programs to raise awareness about mental health (e.g. depression, bipolar, anxiety, mood disorders etc.). Art on or about mental health, emotional art, or therapeutic art are welcome, as are conceptual pieces regarding these topics.  Work in any 2-D or 3-D media, as well as creative writing, may be submitted.

NOTE: This exhibition is planned to tour nationally from late summer 2009 until mid 2010.  Only work that is available for loan for the entire duration of the tour will be considered.  Work will be insured by the NNDC during the exhibition.

Submissions accepted by email only. Send up to 5 JPEGs (Mac & PC compatible), with slide list including media and dimensions, plus a no more than 200 word artist statement to Lindsay Stern at

DEADLINE:  June 5, 2009

Artists will notified of selection by June 30, 2009.

For more information on the National Network of Depression Centers, visit

I expect this exhibit to display some stunning work, as researchers continue to investigate the link between creativity and mental illness. Although it’s not quite as well documented, I’m also a firm believer in the healing power of creativity. I’m not sure if I’m going to submit something or not, but I encourage those who feel moved to do so. There’s no telling the healing, connection, compassion, and awareness your creativity might bring.

Creativity and the Collective Consciousness

March 30, 2009

Josh McDonald, creator of the Ask Rachel comic, recently noted that, on the same day that I wrote about Christianity and sex at the Young Adult Catholics blog, he was also exploring the topic in Ask Rachel. We’ve all had experiences like this; we’re writing a brilliant novel when we find one with eerily similar plot or themes newly released on the shelf; we ponder how we haven’t heard a certain song in ages and hear it on the radio later that same day; we wonder how a certain someone is doing and find an email from them in our inbox.

OK, so I know that, statistically speaking, random chance is all that’s needed for coincidences to occur. But I’ll admit that I like to think it’s more than that. A few of the theories I’ve come across or “created” myself . . .

  1. Collective Consciousness / the Collective Unconscious. Very Jungian, this is the idea that there ARE universal themes and truth in life, and that all human beings can tap into these. This is one explanation for the fact that similar myths or fairy tales appear in cultures that supposedly had no interaction with one another.
  2. Messages from God / a Higher Power. The idea that a Higher Power uses us and speaks through us, and that S/He will plant an idea in many minds or hearts at once, with more than one having the potential to take root and effect change or, at the very least, dialogue.
  3. Psychic Abilities. We don’t receive an email from a long-lost friend because we thought of her; we thought of her because we’re all a little psychic and on some level knew that email would be coming our way. We don’t get random inspiration to create; we psychically tap into our future masterpiece that has already been created.
  4. Soul Connection. This is similar to the Collective Consciousness and psychic gifts, but a little more personal. Essentially, we’re all connected by spiritual energy, and we can pick up on someone else’s energy without being aware of it. So if another soul is spending a lot of time and energy thinking about the Catholic Church and sexuality, we might just tap into that energy and start to ponder it, too.
  5. Alternate Realities. This is one of my favorites, I think. This is the idea that being creative isn’t “making something up”; it’s tapping into a story that already exists in a different time and place. In other words, you’re tapping into something REAL when you create; it’s just not something that’s happening in your world. You’re used as a vessel to create a bridge between worlds, to tell the stories that need telling — from this world or from another.

I admit to being fascinated by esoteric ideas, and while I don’t swear by any of these ideas, I happily entertain all of them. Creativity is a mysterious and amazing gift, and many creatives will tell you they feel as if their art comes “through” them rather than “from” them. I’m interested in theories or ideas I’ve missed, too. Where does it all come from?