January 2, 2018
Imagination: “I will broaden the notion [of imagination] by treating it as a mammalian set of aptitudes (comprised of bodily gestural lexicons, cognitive representational abilities, perceptual knowledge, the memory-emotion complex, cultural mechanisms of informational and emotional management, and, finally, tactical decision-making powers.) There will not be a specific ‘faculty’ that houses all these powers, but rather a network of interconnecting systems. In this sense, my ‘faculty’ is shorthand for a suite of affective and cognitive capacities. Heavy lifting in human creativity is borne by the emotional brain (limbic system) rather than the rational brain (neocortex.)”(Asma 25)
One September a week after my grandson Will was born, my daughter-in-law phoned me in tears, sounding quite desperate. Will had been born with a cleft soft palate and was having trouble sucking. She had wanted to breast-feed him, but he couldn’t do it. Likewise, he couldn’t feed from the nipple of a conventional bottle. “He’s going to starve to death.” I went right down to their home. This was before the universal ease of googling was in practice, but somehow on their computer I was able to find information. A company in Toronto sold a special nipple for babies born with a cleft soft palate. We phoned the company, they Fed-exed the nipples, and despair was averted.
The story of the invention of the nipple came with the package. A professional designer in England, Mandy Haberman, had given birth to a baby with a cleft soft palate and had a similar dilemma. She designed a modification of the conventional silicone nipple, sometimes called a teat.
This was imagination working at the top of its game. The woman was trained as a designer. She had a desperate need. A silicone nipple had been designed and was common, so the concept—the cliché--was already there. She had to learn about the physiology of her baby’s condition. She improvised a modification of a conventional nipple.
Many conditions had to be in place for my and my daughter-in-law’s improvising skills to be enabled on this occasion. The information-seeking aspect of the internet had been developed, and I had been using it for four or five years. I, with a virtually illegible handwriting and clumsy typewriting skills, had embraced the computer. In a test she had been given when she was up for a promotion, “strategic planning” was her number one strength. She and I had developed an unusually strong bond over ten years. We are both intelligent, but even more, we both have been gifted with other traits necessary for the “faculty of imagination” to work. In this case, our limbic systems are highly developed--or maybe the system has been not only been developed but had arrived especially strong at our births. This cooperative venture made the systems even stronger.
Written later: February 1, 2018
The limbic system: Females on average have a larger deep-limbic system than males, resulting in more bonding ability. How does this affect their imagination? The system includes the olfactory receptors, and thus women have a more acute sense of smell. It has been speculated that this has evolved so that a woman can pick out her baby from a group. Would stimulating the sense of smell also help a woman’s imagination? As in the poet Schiller keeping rotten apples under his desk? One’s own urine and feces are strong scents, not unpleasant when they are normal, but alarming when the smell is different, signaling some trouble inside. A different-smelling feces in my babies was alarming
Do women in their journals mention smell more than often than men do? Why do I dislike artificial scents? I will try an experiment of having a strong smell next to me when I write. Coffee.
No outside muse furnished my novels, but they didn’t come about because of my own genius or even intelligence or even hard work. Creative activity is a function of many qualities—mine and others. “Language is an imagination pump.” (144)
My method of writing my novels was to begin with a scene that popped into my head and somehow seemed full of possibilities. I used to say that the scene was “luminous”, but I don’t think that is the right word. Perhaps the word “alive” is better. Not a doll but a baby.
At the same time, under the sway of Viktor Shklovsky, I thought I needed a scaffolding, a form that would give coherence, help the novel along, but not hinder my imagination with clichés of plot or event. When I was writing, I had no idea what would come next. I have said that the reader of the novel at any given page would know exactly what I knew.
The characters and the action were unique, not portrayals of people I knew, or descriptions of events in my life, and yet my oldest son found the novels difficult to read “because it’s like putting my finger in my belly button and twirling it.” To my son the novels were me, contained his mother. I was not preaching; I did not know the answers to the big questions. My aim was to come to a new insight. Something new to me at any rate.
“Creative activity decenters the ego,” writes Asma. (27) This is why it sometimes seems as if during the process of improvising, a muse--a transcendental giver of ideas or solutions--comes from outside. But it only seems like that, like my being an actor on the stage, forgetting my words, saying “line” and someone off stage cues me. Writing fiction is more like my being on the stage, forgetting my words, saying something vaguely appropriate to fill the void; the right words then appear because the pump has been primed. I write something down vaguely in the right ballpark, my limbic system is primed, some more words appear.
My first published novel, Flora, Write This Down, was built on the scaffolding of the book of Revelations. I had been reading Austen Farrer’s The Rebirth of Images on how Revelations used images from the bible. The images from both Farrer’s book and the biblical book gave my novel its structure. I used the images in several ways—the characters’ names, the actions; the novel thus contained Farrer and John of Patmos. It contained Sarah Orne Jewett too and the use of herbs in her novel Country of the Pointed Firs.