Imagine Not

I would like to thank Pablo and the team at for so kindly inviting me on as a guest author these last four weeks. I’m grateful for your help, and it has been a pleasure joining the game.

When I went to the Tim Burton exhibit at the MoMA in NYC a couple of weeks ago, it was understandably mobbed. We visitors rotated along the walls in a tightly-packed horde, gaping and pointing. For the most part, we were reverently quiet enough so that it was startling when the fubsy guard next to the Edward Scissorhands mannequin yelled out to somebody to put a camera away. It was unbelievably cool to be that close to the nuts and bolts of someone’s imagination, especially one so wild and playful and sinister.
I was happy to plant myself with my nose a few inches from a drawing and let the people bump past me in slow-mo. I liked to take in the gist, then see how Burton used the color to fill in the lines, and most of all, I liked to see the eraser marks from where he’d changed his mind. I felt like a genius myself because I could spot, right there: that’s where Tim Burton revised. I wanted to show my niece, so I looked up to find her and saw instead these dozens of packed people.

That’s when something strange hit me. We were all there, en masse, to appreciate a mind remarkable for its singular imagination. Furthermore, we could never have as much fun looking at Burton’s stuff as he must have had making it in the first place. Something was wrong.

For most of my life, I have welcomed any chance to be dazzled by the manifestation of someone else’s imagination. I’ve sat in the driveway spell-bound listening to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number 2 on my radio. I’ve cried at the parade of lights in Disney World when float after impossible float rolls by. I’ve stared at Van Gogh’s swirls, and I’ve lost the capacity to speak when tasting a certain flourless chocolate cake recipe. I swooned at Avatar, naturally. I never connected what the masters were doing with their creativity to my own writing, of course. Why would I? It’s hubris even to suggest that what I scribble in a notebook touches the same realm as Shakespeare’s plays. At best, I might learn some technique from experts, some of their craft, if I poked hard enough at a model. All this time, I thought I was paying attention and fully appreciating their works, but do you know what I overlooked? The invitation.

With the ease of today’s technology, we have become so accustomed to having expert versions of everything, from the perfect music on our ipods to the precision landings of our Olympic figure skaters, that we’ve lost the entire middle tier of amateur. Anything less than perfection is a fail, so we don’t even bother with it. Mediocrity shames us. We hardly let even children be beginners; if they aren’t top-notch batters by age 10, they don’t make the team.

By the same token, many of us have surrendered our imperfect imaginations to the experts. The imaginary friends we used to take to the playground have evanesced, and now, instead, we pay money, very good money, for Tim Burton, James Cameron and the Assassin’s Creed 2 crew to entertain us. During our seduction, we’ve conversely learned to imagine not. Most ironic of all, we pay Disney to tell us and our children to dream—as if we couldn’t dream on our own. That’s just dangerous.

There was Mr. Burton urging me by his example to go imagine, and not because I might be well-paid for it some day, but because it could be fun. His invitation has doubtless been presented to me before, but never so vividly contrasted with its opposite: the mob. We still have a choice. Why should only our Shakespeares have the right to be lost in their imaginations? Why not the rest of us? We don’t have to become Tim Burtons; we just have to become us.

The invitation I heard in that MoMA gallery, even more important now when we regular types risk losing our imaginations forever, is the artist’s invitation: Go make your own art. Go draw or paint or sing or write or sew or garden. There’s no time to waste. Do it badly if you must, but enjoy the scribbling and claim it as your own.

Caragh O’Brien’s futuristic, dystopian story, Birthmarked, is due out from Roaring Brook Press in April, 2010. It is her first young adult novel.


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