Re-learning to Imagine Like a Child

Reading by Talewhisper Used with permission.
Reading by Talewhisper Used with permission.

Do you remember when the shapes you saw in the clouds or tree branches were mystical creatures? When the space under the dining room table was a gypsy tent or a pirate ship? When exploring the backyard was a trip to a foreign land or maybe even another planet? I do, but I don’t remember how I got there.

You see, I’ve come to the shocking (especially for a writer) conclusion that I’m not nearly as creative as I used to be. I know that’s not all that unusual for an adult, but it was a jarring realization for me. What precipitated this epiphany? A few weeks ago I read Laini Taylor’s novella Night of Cakes and Puppets. I love all of her books (seriously LOVE), but this one was special. While I was reading, it gave me that feeling I had all the time as a child, that anything is possible – anything at all – and magic is real. This was the world as I used to know it.

What happened, you ask? I have no idea. And that’s why I’m here today. I’m on a quest to recapture my childhood imagination, to free my brain from the shackles of propriety life has bound it in and let myself see the magic and possibilities in life again. Reading Laini’s book really threw into sharp relief just how constrained my imagination really is, especially in comparison to hers. I’m a writer, so that may sound strange, but even within the realm of fiction, I find myself bound by certain rules of what can and cannot be done, rules that likely exist only in my head. (What’s worse, now I find myself thinking of what an audience would like or what will fly with a publisher.) I want to be free, to someday write that fantasy novel that captures the whimsy of youth for adult readers who, like me, have lost touch with their inner child.

Being a writer, the first thing I did was try to remember when I last had the feeling truly free imagination. In late grade school/early high school, I was still training (read: exercising) under the conviction I was meant to be a vampire slayer (thank you, original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie), so I know I had it then.  It was probably late high school or early college when I lost it. That sounds about right because that’s when you start to enter “the real world.”

Then I turned to my trusty friends, books, to try to figure out how to get it back. Turns out, most of the books on imagination/creativity in Amazon’s catalog fall into four categories:  a) geared toward business, b) related to religion/manifestation, c) related to healing yourself from addiction/abuse or d) how to encourage creativity in your child. Nothing for adults on how to get it back. Maybe someday if/when I figure it out, I’ll write one.

I think the more you use it, the more it comes back, so I’ll certainly keep on writing. Until then, I’m going to surround myself with creative people (online and IRL), try my best and hope some of the pixie sparkle rubs off! 

So where does that leave me? Asking you lovely people for advice! If you have any tips for getting in touch with your childhood imagination, please let me know!

Have you ever had a similar experience? Better yet, have you figured out how to get in touch with your inner creative child? If so, please tell me about it. I want to hear your experiences.

11 thoughts on “Re-learning to Imagine Like a Child

  1. It’s definitely all about practice for me. When I was at my lowest points with depression and the exhaustion of having babies/small children, I thought my imagination had died completely. Over the past few years I’ve slowly been training it to misbehave. It’s a matter of seeking out different ways to see things until it becomes natural, and (more importantly) not derailing my train of thought when it wants to go somewhere strange. Instead of saying “that can’t be” when my mind throws something crazy at me, I try to ask, “how could that be?” and follow that track as far as I can, no matter how absurd it seems.

    My imagination still isn’t what it once was, but I saw the most amazing pirate ship in the clouds a few weeks ago, a dragon in the night sky last fall that exploded into a flock of birds, and I now work in a blanket fort/office when I write (because I needed an office, and I let my imagination out to play when I solved that problem).

    Your mileage may vary, of course. That’s just how I’m approaching it. 🙂

    I’ll check out that novella, thanks!

    1. Hi Kate,

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It means so much to know I’m not alone. I love your idea of thinking “how could that be” instead of “that can’t be.” I am SO stealing it!

  2. Shauna Granger says:

    Oh, I know exactly when I lost mine for a time. I held on to mine through college, probably because I got to be a Creative Writing Major, but once I graduated I found there wasn’t much call for that in the work force. I took a job at an insurance company, and what was worse, it was in the claims department. I made fantastic money, don’t get me wrong, but it was the seventh circle of hell. Eight hours of being yelled at on the phone, explaining the same things over and over, day after day, and having management treat us like lesser than. I gained weight. I drank more than I ever have in my life. I was sad A LOT. When I quit, I moved into a job to be an office manager, doesn’t sound better, but it was at that job that I was able to finish my first book. The time from when I graduated college to the time I started the office manager job it was a good three years. Three years of not writing, hardly reading. These things make a difference.

    1. I completely agree, Shauna. And honestly, I think what you do during the day has a lot to do with it. I write for my day job, but it’s not particularly creative writing (with some wonderful exceptions, of course!). Maybe I’ll turn that on it’s head and try to find new ways to be creative in whatever way I can with it. Maybe that will help. You’ve really got me thinking in a positive direction. Thanks!

  3. Kate: I love your description of life post-babies. It’s so true. You get caught up in the everyday and just getting stuff done, that you forget to daydream. I agree that it’s about practice. The more I write creatively, the more my mind turns on the creative.

    And, Shauna, I totally agree. There are some jobs which steal your soul!

  4. Great post, Nicole. I often feel this way, and I think it’s largely because writing makes me feel like I must produce–be productive. There was no call to be productive when I was a kid building a fort in the woods, creating an ancient civilization out of sandcastles, playing with toy cars that could talk, or coloring birds bright colors in coloring books. The sky was the limit. I think all of those things I did then were my pre-writing behaviors that were preparing me to be a writer, and if I could recapture some of them, that would help, so go build a sandcastle, draw like you did as a kid, do crafts like you did in art class, take up a new hobby to see the world a different way, and do it all for the fun of it and not because you have to produce – all advice I keep giving myself and need to take.

    1. Tyler, you make some really good points here. The drive to be productive can certainly hamper the creative process. I really like your suggestions of taking up arts and crafts again – I can’t remember the last time I did something like that. Maybe I’ll even break out a coloring book and crayons! And fun. I need to remember that this is supposed to be fun. Thank you so much!

  5. This is an interesting idea, and after reading your post, I have thoughts. Not particularly well-organized thoughts, but I’ll dive in and see where then lead…

    The first thing that occurred to me was that while you may not be as whimsical now as you were as a child, you bring more experience, wisdom, knowledge and empathy to your life and your writing as an adult. I guess the main thrust of what I’m saying is that there is a balance that must be maintained between pure whimsy and coherence, so don’t feel too let down that your mind may never be as unfettered as it once was.

    But if you want to capture that kind of bizarre way of connecting unrelated concepts, even if you then decide to apply reason and (internal?) consistency, then you may have to rely on tools to jump the tracks of your adult-constrained thinking. Chuck Wendig put together a guide to creative swearing here (note it’s very sweary):
    One could apply a similar template to other concepts (a list of mythical beasts, and then a list of random occupations could lead to a Centaur Mechanic, for instance). From there, I think the fun is trying to imagine a story where I could feature a centaur mechanic in either the real world, or in a far-flung fantasy world where the mystical meets the mundane.

    There are other things that get my imagination revving, but the thing they all have in common is unfamiliarity. Some board games I play have some extremely imaginative monsters that are only vaguely sketched out for me; fodder for all sorts of bogeymen. Reading folk tales and myths from unfamiliar cultures that defy the typical story structure can lead me along some fresh paths I could never find just meditating on my own. Some visual art is so strange and haunting to me that I cannot help but to begin framing a story around the tableau.

    I guess this is why some authors suggest reading outside of your comfort zone, both in fiction and nonfiction; what you normally focus on can connect in odd and interesting ways to new ideas.

    …And there you have my random thoughts on whimsy; thoughts that might not have ever occurred to me if not for your post; so thanks for that!

    1. Wow, Robert, those are some insightful comments. Thanks for taking the time to share them. I’m glad my post got you thinking as well. After all, that’s what this is all about!

      You make a great point about age bringing wisdom and experience. That makes me feel a little better. Thanks for the link to Chuck’s post. I’m going to go check that out right now. He’s always good for a new perspective!

      What you say about unfamiliarity really is key. Sometimes the unknown is what gets your creative juices going; at least moreso than trying to reimagine that which you are already familiar with. Funny that you should mention folk and fairytales. I actually thought of reading those as a way to retrain my imagination. (Great minds…right?)

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