The Lack of Imagination

by thiszine

by Lacey N. Dunham

In the recent fiction issue of The Atlantic, Tim O’Brien discusses what is, in his opinion, the absolute necessity in fiction: imagination.


Photo: Interactive Angle

Photo: Interactive Angle

In O’Brien’s mind, imagination is more important than description, than clearly seeing the character as a red head or as someone with baby blue eyes. O’Brien says in the essay, “the more dangerous problem with unsuccessful stories is usually…: I am bored. And I would remain bored even if the story were packed with pages of detail aimed at establishing verisimilitude. I would believe the story, perhaps, but I would still hate it.”


Description is great, sure, but the reader needs something to happen.


I think of a writing workshop I participated in as an undergraduate. One of the women in the class, Jenny, submitted to workshop the first chapter of her science-fiction novel. Although I can’t quite remember the exact words she used or the name of the fictional setting of the piece, the opening of the story went something like this:

      Thalia was a far away land. It was a tiny speck in the Yama Galaxy. The Yama Galaxy was filled with red and purple planets mostly and they were very large, like monsters. Thalia was a tiny planet and looked blue from far away. It was half as large as the next nearest planet, Bimpton and definitely smaller than the largest planet in the Yama Galaxy, Brutth. Upon closer inspection the planet wasn’t really blue at all but was really a green-blue and brightly shining. The Yama Galaxy hadn’t been around that long yet and that meant that Thalia was a very new planet. Despite that, it was a thriving planet and had two kingdoms on it, one small and one large. Prana was one small kindgom on the planet. Dupet was a large kingdom on the planet. Prana and Dupet were enemies and would end up in a war very soon.

This went on and on for the entire first chapter with nothing much happening. Even the promising final line of the first paragraph “Prana and Dupet were enemies and would end up in a war very soon” was lost to the description of Thalia and the Yama Galaxy that followed. I knew precisely what Prana and Dupet look liked, sure, but I didn’t know why I should give a damn.


During workshop, I remember telling Jenny that I needed to see more in her piece. I said it just like that, “I need to see more.” She was very quick to say, “Well, there’s lots of description. It’s not my fault if you can’t see it.” (To her defense, Jenny and I were sworn enemies due to allegiances forced upon us following an argument between our roommates.)


Had I been more articulate, had O’Brien written his piece a few years earlier, I would know precisely what I meant to say. I wanted to tell Jenny, your piece is creative and full of description. You’ve created a whole world and described it to us in great detail. But, to cop a line from O’Brien, “the research might be a resounding success but the drama is a dismal failure.” (Since Jenny and I were sworn enemies, I don’t think I would have hesitated at all to use such a heavy phrase as “dismal failure” even though she would have certainly torn my hair out in a dining room brawl later that day.)


Writing is anything but organic work, at least for me. I don’t sit down at my computer and magically weave an entire tapestry as if I was Penelope. Sometimes I write entire pages of description and exposition only to strike all of it later except, maybe, a few precious words that captured what I wanted to share about a character. This practice really use to bother me. I thought, why am I sitting here for three hours typing away only to erase it all the next day? Eventually I realized that what I viewed as wasted time was really my unconscious preparing me for the larger story. I needed to write all of that description and exposition so when I finally sat down with what I really wanted to say, the character was firmly there, the story had action and drama, and I was saying something more than a lot of pretty adjectives and adverbs. I had been running training laps around the gym.


It’s definitely important to have imagination as an author. Imagination is what gets us going, what sets ideas into motion. Imagination is terrific but it can’t be buried beneath so much other junk that the reader loses track of–or worse yet, interest in–the story. So let your imagination soar, sure, but be sure to take a long, hard look with your editing pen later.



4 Comments to “The Lack of Imagination”

  1. Your reference to Penelope is interesting, especially since you go on to say that you end up deleting pages of work. I don’t think anyone writes like Penelope… by the tenth year of weaving the same tapestry, I’ll bet she did it without even thinking. (I’m getting fuzzy now… did she re-weave the same exact piece every night, or did she come up with something new? I believe it was the same one.) Personally, if I were to find that I never produced a product despite all that time spent writing, I would give up long before ten years.

    I have had occasions where I’ve done the same thing as you; I end up keeping only a few sentences or phrases, and the rest of the story/poem/piece has to be rewritten entirely, beginning seemingly from scratch, but with a strong base in my mind.

    • Yes, I think that sometimes I need to firm up the foundation for whatever it is I’m working on before I can actually get to the goods of the writing, the “strong base” as you put it. And I think that’s why it’s important to keep writing because eventually, the tapestry is finished, or as finished as it ever will be.

      I think you’re right, that it was the same tapestry she worked on each day and pulled out each evening so that she would never finish. But, like you, my mind if a bit fuzzy on the details…. I last read the Odyssey probably fifteen years ago!

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  2. I agree, Brighton, that there is a huge gap between what constitutes an “okay story” from ones that are “good” and ones that are “really amazing.”

    I think it’s important to do the work of exercising your imagination as a writer. It’s like exercise for athletes… it keeps you sharp and, even though the payoff isn’t immediate, in the long run, it makes a huge difference to the quality of a writer’s work.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. I think this raises a good point about how stories are made and what the difference is between okay stories, good stoires, and really amazing stories. Little kids have lots of imagination and are good storytellers but aren’t really amazing storytellers because often, I think, there’s lots of detail but not enough happens. That’s the difference I see and what I think you’re talking about here.

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