Most people rarely access the imagination.
That doesn’t mean they don’t daydream, “imagine” things in the sense that they picture what they want, like a new car or a great vacation, or they picture what they don’t want, like their lover leaving them for another lover.
In that sense people “imagine.”
But that’s not imagination.
Those are thoughts and patterns of familiar narratives or cultural memes that help you understand your own reality, that which filter out phenomenon that doesn’t serve your world view or provide answers that you need for immediate problems.
It’s a perfect neuroscience metaphor that the older you get the more the right side of your brain deteriorates, that is, the creative half, much faster than the left side, the logical side, the mathematical side, the side that recognizes patterns.
The left side of the brain stays younger longer, so even if you’re experiencing cognitive decline, your ability to recognize patterns could allow you to appear to others as wise.
Even one who suffers from Alzheimer’s, like Ronald Reagan, can be president. Elkhonon Goldberg calls this wisdom, or at least claims that part of wisdom is this instant access to patterns accumulated over a lifetime.
However, there are some older people who may not have done a lot of challenging neural activity in their lives, so by the time they get old their patterns are limited, and they can live in a small world of possibilities, shrinking and becoming parodies of their younger selves.
The older we get, the more we use pattern recognition over imagination. As a young man Einstein imagined himself chasing after light beams, as an older man he tried to find the patterns that would connect the known forces of physics, to find the unified theory.
His failure was one of imagination.
I’m getting old, pushing on 60, so I guess what would make me a legal senior citizen. I’m a fiction writer, one who loves to spend time in imaginary worlds and who is willing to believe as I’m walking through a forest that if a tree moves and startles me, there could a spirit or consciousness in the tree. Sometimes the spirit tells me it’s name.
I spent much of my life reading and teaching fiction, so now a series of patterns come to me about the tree, multiple possible narratives, some of which I’ve encountered before in books and movies, even if I don’t remember them.
Others come from personal narrative patterns, playing in a fruitless mulberry tree when I was a kid, or afraid to walk under the tree in my grandmother’s backyard because of the wasp nests.
When I write I try to let the language take me into the story, but sometimes I have to fight patterns.
My fight becomes the rhythm of the voice against the patterns that I consciously or unconsciously recognize belong to the spirit of the tree, that come from previous patterns I’ve been exposed to, even when it’s not about a tree.
One of the immediate patterns might be that the tree is an ancient sage, a friendly spirit that will give me advice and guide me in the right direction, one of Joseph Campbell’s archetypes, or the Mentor Archetype in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.
Another is that the tree could be a guard, a gatekeeper, trying to prevent my protagonist from going deeper into the forest.
Immediately story patterns come to me, and my struggle at this point in my writer’s life is to fight those patterns.
Or maybe fight isn’t the correct word. Negotiate.
To understand that patterns in all phenomenon will come to the writer, but that doesn’t mean they’re good ideas.
They could be cliches.
I teach fiction, and new fiction writers turn in stories that are based on patterns of cultural narratives. They write poor imitations of Harry Potter stories or stories about dragons that are influenced by Game of Thrones.
When they get a story idea, which they take for imagination, they don’t realize it’s a pattern. This is true of even the talented fiction writers, those who are going to go onto to write great works. Their first stories sound a lot like Sandra Cisneros or Junot Diaz or William Faulkner.
The older you get the more patterns you have for every story idea, but you still need to follow language, and the voice, a spirit, will choose and sample elements from multiple patterns to make your story a little better.
At least that’s what I’m hoping in my old age.