Saturday, February 28, 2009
Where Does Imagination Go?
Last night I watched Bridge to Terabithia, the movie version of one of my all-time favorite books from childhood. I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't seen or read it (and there's a lot to spoil), but the very short version is that it's about friendship and imagination. A fifth-grade loner guy is befriended by the new girl in school and she leads him into creating a whole imaginary kingdom for just the two of them (aka Terabithia). As a kid, this book was my inspiration. Just like the main characters, Jess & Leslie, I created whole worlds in my head.

The cool thing watching the movie was how they depicted their imaginings becoming "real". They weren't just talking about what they were imagining, they actually saw it. And seeing this on the screen reminded me that when I was that age, my imginary worlds were every bit as real to me as they appeared on screen to Jess & Leslie. There were times when I really felt like I was only one small step away from physically seeing or hearing them in reality, not just in my mind's eye. And watching other kids today, I'd say that most children likewise have this ability to live in their fantasies, not just as games of make-believe, but as something that is almost real to them.

I also remember when that ability faded for me. I remember it was around seventh grade, and it seemed like all of a sudden that I couldn't quite imagine things in the same way anymore. I couldn't go out in the woods and play army the way I used to. I couldn't set up my action figures and watch whole stories unfold with them. It makes me wonder what happened. I know it wasn't a simple matter of losing interest, of becoming consumed with more "mature" interests like girls or school or whatever. I still wanted to go out and play, but I couldn't do it like I had before. It was like someone had flipped a switch. Maybe it was some hormonal/bio-chemical thing related to the onset of puberty, but for whatever reason, my day-dreams and fantasy worlds stopped being so real to me anymore.

I'm not saying I totally lost my sense of imagination. I still held onto it through my love of fantasy and sci-fi books. But reading about someone else's imaginary world in a book is not the same as creating an almost-tangible one of your own in your head on a daily basis. And I just wonder where it went. What happened to it? It makes me sad to think about it really. One day I was an imaginative little kid, and the next day my toy army men are lying in the dirt of my backyard, never to be played with again (literally... they're probably still there today covered with almost two decades worth of dirt and grass).

Where does the imagination go? I wonder if the best writers and story-tellers are the ones who somehow manage to hang onto it, keep that switch from being flipped, when everyone else is forced to enter the "real world" whether they want to or not.


posted by Mike Clawson at 10:08 PM | Permalink |


At 2/28/2009 11:09:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

The cool thing watching the movie was how they depicted their imaginings becoming "real".

That's interesting; most of the people I know who've read the book (I haven't) have pointed this out as a flaw in the movie, since it supposedly isn't true to the "make-believe" nature of the book. I liked the film, incidentally.

But I wouldn't say we lose our imaginations as we grow older. Rather, our eyes turn more towards the potentials of the real world and the imagining of what's possible in it, and small plastic toys lose their ability to compete.


At 3/01/2009 12:24:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Well, that's my whole point - that for most kids (or for me at least) "make-believe" was almost real. Maybe the folks making that critique don't remember what it was like.


At 3/01/2009 06:56:00 AM, Blogger Laurel

Mike...what a wonderful post. I loved that story too as a kid. I've never seen the movie but I guess I will need to now.

I think it's not a gross exaggeration that as a collective circumstance in our society, we have lost our ability to imagine. While reading your post, I remembered something White said in class last week, he was actually quoting someone else but I don't remember who, that going into Iraq was the lack to imagine, or something like that.....anyway, great post and I'll see you soon.


At 3/03/2009 10:08:00 AM, Blogger gerbmom

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear, he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

Robert Louis Stevenson


At 3/03/2009 01:10:00 PM, Blogger M James

As someone who regularly spends his Friday nights and Sunday afternoons pretending to be a 1920's professor trying to stop the Great Old Ones from breaking through to our reality, an elven hacker running jobs for future criminals in Detroit, a Cleric of Lathander spreading the good news of the Morninglord I can say my imagination is very intact and used a lot!


At 3/03/2009 04:09:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Michael - I've always regretted never having the opportunity to get into serious role-playing, and I wonder if I had if I might not have lost the realism of my imagination to the degree that I did.


At 3/05/2009 10:51:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

The phenomenon you're describing is often noted in literature: from Robert Louis Stevenson (well-illustrated by Gerbmom's post) to Peter Pan (Mr. Darling vaguely remembers such a ship), to the Narnia stories (Peter and Susan are too old to come back to Narnia, and Susan eventually loses altogether the ability to believe it was ever real at all), to the children's book (and movie) The Polar Express (the boy and his sister can hear the bell ring but their parents can't; and as the boy and his sister get older they lose the ability to hear the bell ring, too) there are many such observations.

Madeleine L'Engle has written well about imagination and writing, and I think she'd agree with your thesis - that the best writers and storytellers have somehow managed to hold onto at least a good portion of that childhood quality that most people lose.

Reading JRR Tolkien's collected letters it really jumps out at you - to him, Middle Earth was as real as Oxford. JK Rowling feels much the same way about the world she created, as does L'Engle about hers, etc.


At 3/06/2009 04:36:00 PM, Blogger M James

It's never too late to start. I know there is Tower Shield Dwarf inside you just waiting to get out!



Links to this post

Links to this post:

Create a Link