I’m in the business of fabrication. Or the business of invention. Or, less elegantly, the business of making stuff up, otherwise known as the business of a fiction writer. Being in the final stretch of a creative writing MFA program means that every three weeks for roughly the past year and a half I’ve had to muster up a new fictional short story. Now I feel as though I am desperately scraping at the bottom of the well of my creative inspiration. How to imagine a new character in a new setting battling a different conflict and still create a story of significance when the ecclesiastical voice in my head reminds me, “there is nothing new under the sun”? I am stumped, but come Monday I must send off another story.
I know this sort of creative desert is not isolated to writer’s block. Nor is it only a struggle of artists, but an obstacle inherent in humans: the business manager at a loss of how to cultivate a hardworking team; the stay-at-home mom at her wit’s end of how to lovingly discipline her toddler who keeps splattering the kitchen walls with creamed spinach; the human rights activist who has lost all hope of ending discrimination in the judicial system; the relief worker at the U.S.-Mexico border unable to provide enough blankets for families seeking refuge. Every one of us needs imaginative hope—means of exceptional vision to uncover the good in the world.
How do we continue to imagine the world as it could be when it feels like an impossible task, when it feels like the hope of making something beautiful or restoring goodness is perpetually distant?
Perhaps the first step to overcoming this obstacle is to understand the essential human need for creative vision—how in times of uncertainty and despair, vision can be a means to understanding and renewal. Once reminded of the potency of this kind of ingenuity, it is hard to ignore how imagination intrinsically burgeons within us as beings created in the image of a Creator.
Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek, in an interview with On Being podcast creator Krista Tippett, discusses the question, “Does the world embody beautiful ideas?” In response, Wilczek points to a discovery about light:
When you look at a light beam of a different color, and you’re moving towards it, it gets shifted towards the blue end of the rainbow. So if it was red, it might become yellow or green or blue — or ultraviolet, if you’re moving fast enough. And if you’re moving away, there’s what’s called the red shift. Things move towards the opposite end of the rainbow. So all these colors can be derived from one of them by moving at an appropriate velocity. So really, the existence of one implies the existence of all the others.
“Every one of us needs imaginative hope—means of exceptional vision to uncover the good in the world.”
Wilczek is saying that at a particular distance and time the human eye can only see one color even though all are present. This idea leads Wilczek to conclude it is imperative we view the world from multiple perspectives in order to gain a fuller picture of what surrounds us. In other words, we have to exercise our imaginations to expand our knowledge of the world in order to, as he says, “do justice to reality.”
This is why the human ability to imagine is so vital. Though the limitations of our physical bodies—eyes that only see one color where there are many—prevent us from greater understanding, our minds have the ability to break those bounds, to know the world as it really is, beyond our own opinions and circumstances. So much of our ability to imagine comes from a faith that there is more to be seen.
Another voice I’ve turned to in my attempts to understand imagination is Christian Wiman, a poet diagnosed with blood cancer and battling with belief. In his memoir My Bright Abyss Wiman notes there is danger in using our imaginations to remake God: “Christ is always being remade in the image of man, which is to say, his reality is always being deformed to fit human needs, or what humans perceive to be their needs.” However, he goes on to write,
A deeper truth, though, one that scripture suggests when it speaks of the eternal Word being made specific flesh, is that there is no permutation of humanity in which Christ is not present. If every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go—Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man to whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who, after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the scriptures, had to vanish to make them see.
What a wild thought: Christ, whom the disciples knew intimately and in the flesh, came back to life and was unrecognizable to them. Yes, it is a matter of faith. But it is significantly and radically a matter of imagination, the capacity to see beyond the physical evidence presented to our senses.
“So much of our ability to imagine comes from a faith that there is more to be seen.”
The disciples were called to imagine mightily in the absence of their Christ because what they saw with their eyes was not the whole truth. Without the ability to formulate a foreign idea—in the disciples’ case, the idea that the man beside them was Jesus—belief in that idea is impossible. Without the courage, audacity, and faith to use imagination in such transformative ways, and without recognizing the grace that imagination is, so much would be lost: our ability to empathize with those whose lives differ radically from our own; our ability to formulate ideas of the extraordinary; our ability to envision a world free of injustice; our ability to think up resolutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. If we can’t picture possibilities of redemption in our minds, how will we begin to take the steps necessary to make this vision real?
“Each imaginative idea reveals a new facet of our world now and the kingdom to come.”
If I can say I’m in the business of fiction writing, I can also say I am in the business of attending as many performances of the musical Hamilton as possible in this lifetime. I love the theater—sophisticated dress, beautiful architecture, the magic of a live symphony and the thrill of live acting, yes please! But this is not the magnetism that draws me back again and again to Hamilton. For me, this play is a brilliant manifestation of the importance of imagination here and now. Writer and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was on a beachside vacation with his family when he happened to pick up Ron Chernow’s eight-hundred-and-eighteen-page-thick biography of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Inspired by the immigrant who was integral in drafting and defending the U.S. Constitution and responsible for establishing the National Bank, Miranda had to share what he saw in this forgotten historical figure. Naturally, he wrote a rap musical.
Five years after Hamilton’s debut, shows continue to sell out. Such intense popularity is evidence that Miranda’s work taps into a universal need to imagine a world better than this. Through Hamilton he inspires us to look beyond what is written down in history books and to ask the question, “What if this was how the story went?” In answering this question Miranda re-imagined what was familiar. This reimagination comes at a time when questions of race, nationality, and gender are topics of division, but by giving a voice to women, immigrants, and people of color in his musical, Miranda reminds us of the hope of freedom upon which our nation was founded.
It is expressions of imagination like Wilczek’s, Wiman’s, and Miranda’s that remind me we must fight to stay engaged with our minds’ imaginative abilities. We can continue to imagine by leaning into the inspiring works of others, and by believing there is more to be discovered than what we see before us. Each imaginative idea reveals a new facet of our world now and the kingdom to come so that, like words inked in lemon juice held to a flame, mysteries are revealed and fuller understanding helps us to live as better representatives of a Holy God. Because regardless of vocation, the need for this hopeful and extraordinary thinking is pressing; with imagination we might act toward the world as God intended—not confined to what we see and know by our own circumstances, but with empathy and faith beyond ourselves.
Let us seek out those who present the world uniquely and ingeniously to feed our imaginations—and in turn offer to others visions beyond their own. Let us cling to the hope that for now, though we see dimly, one day we will see face to face. And in the meantime let us piece together a picture of redemption, one wild idea at a time.