Nothing’s Original: A plea for the revival of imagination

Recently, I took a short little quiz that tested whether I was primarily left or right brained and the percentage of each. I knew basically what the results were going to be, and this ended up being the result of my test:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.32.16 PM

The result didn’t surprise me one bit. I know that I’m very right brain inclined. What caught me off guard was the primary word at the top of that right brain list.

Imagination.

This surprised me, quite frankly. From my perspective, I feel that my imagination died years ago. I grew up without many friends, there weren’t any kids in the neighborhood I lived in, and I never really played with my siblings, so I grew up primarily watching TV and playing video games to pass the time. I owned tons of toys and action figures and, honestly, I can’t for the life of me remember the last time I played with any of those toys and used my imagination. I made this thought clear when I posted my results on Facebook, stating that I honestly believed that my imagination died when I was around eight years old. It was then that an old school friend of mine reminded me that I wrote my own fictional stories all the way up until I was in middle school. I shared a lot of these stories with my friends as I wrote them. And I honestly forgot about them. Then I remembered that, even early on in high school, whenever we had any sort of creative writing prompts, my wheels usually started turning pretty rapidly. I remember one prompt in particular based on a short story called “The Scarlatti Tilt.” Although I suppose “short story” is an overstatement. The story, written by Richard Brautigan, is as follows:

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

That’s it. Two sentences. Our prompt was to write a story based off this story. As soon as I read this story, my brain started to kick into gear. What I eventually ended up with was a story of a man who lost his job as principal violinist of the orchestra, who, driven by sorrow after losing everything he’d worked for, ended up murdering his roommate and jumping out the window. The short story above ended up being the final line of my story, delivered by a police officer at the scene. Super dark and grim, I know, but it was unique. It was something different than what most other people would think of. I used my imagination to come up with an intriguing story. This was early in my high school career. Then, suddenly, my imagination just…Stopped.

My question is why? What happened to me so that I stopped using my imagination? So I stopped writing, dreaming, and creating?

I feel like this is a question that many people in our culture nowadays could and should ask. What happened to us so that we stopped dreaming and stopped using our imagination? Because I would argue that the vast majority of creators, particularly in film, TV, and literature, have lost their imagination. Nothing’s original any more. Nearly every movie that’s in theaters nowadays is based off of something: books, “true stories,” TV shows, or even other movies. There’s nothing original any more. And most things that are considered “original” are incredibly cliché and predictable.

So what happens to people? What happened so that creators and artists stopped imagining and using their own unique creativity and started copying other people’s work and making it their own? Where did the epic stories of valiant heroes and adventures disappear to in our culture? And why did they disappear?

I’ve thought about this a lot recently, and I have a theory. Unfortunately, it’s due to the same reason most people quit most things: they’re afraid of what people will say. Most likely due to the fact that someone probably put down their imagination and creativity at some point in the past. And I believe that part of the reason this has become so widespread throughout our culture is due to the way that American public schools operate. Everything is graded. From attendance to participation, everything is graded. In classes with creative writing, students’ assignments and prompt submissions are picked apart in detail. Their grammar is graded, their spelling and punctuation are graded. And, ultimately, and unfortunately, so is their creativity.

When students write a story that follows the traditional hero’s journey, their writing is praised and celebrated, as they effectively used all of the different parts of the formula they’ve been given. When students stray from this recipe or use different ingredients, they’re criticized for not focusing on addressing all parts of the assignment, being sloppy with their schoolwork, and, overall, just not doing a good job.

Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say that Jamey and Jordan are both working on a creative writing assignment. In this scenario, Jamey has a very original idea for his creative writing, something very unique that captures his personality very effectively. Jamey, though he’s very imaginative, isn’t very good at writing with proper grammar and has trouble with spelling. When talking to his friend Jordan, Jamey talks about his story and everything he plans on writing for this assignment, incredibly excited about his ideas. Jordan, who hasn’t been able to think of something, finds Jamie’s idea incredibly interesting and decides to adapt it and use it for his own creative writing response. Jordan won the school spelling bee in elementary school several years in a row and knows in the ins and outs of proper grammar in the English language. When both of these students’ assignments are turned in, Jordan will, more than likely, get a higher grade than Jordan, and even be praised for his creativity and imagination. Jamey, on the other hand, will be marked down for spelling mistakes and improper grammar, and possibly even be accused of cheating off of his friend Jordan and stealing his idea.

How would Jamey feel in this situation? My guess is pretty crappy. He’s now been told that his original, creative idea is garbage simply because he isn’t as good at conforming to the obscure rules of English grammar that, quite frankly, most people don’t care about. How could he not take this criticism and apply it directly to his own ideas? After imagining this story and being so excited about it, his thought after receiving his grade would soon become “Oh, I guess my ideas weren’t very good. I guess other people don’t think it’s as good as I do. Maybe all of my creative ideas are bad.” Jamey stops using his imagination. He feels like it’s pointless, that his own creativity “isn’t good” and is uninteresting to other people. On the other hand, Jordan, being praised for his effective use of prose, feels incredibly accomplished after stealing his friend’s work and using it as his own.

What’s wrong with this picture? If you don’t see something wrong, I’ll be honest, I think you have a problem. When imagination and creativity is graded, students can easily feel that their own imagination is bad, and the natural response from experiencing this criticism is simply to stop imagining things. Stop dreaming. Stop trying to be creative. Because, obviously, no one else appreciates it.

There’s something I feel I need to say here. This isn’t a blog where I propose a solution to the problem I’ve discovered. This is simply the rambling of someone who has discovered an incredibly disheartening reality and has decided to ramble on about it in the hope that other people will become aware of a major issue. This is a plea for the revival of imagination. Children and students should be encouraged in their imagination and creativity. They should be encouraged to dream. And when they dream, when they create, when they use their imagination, they shouldn’t be put down for it. Adhering to the rules laid out by social constructs shouldn’t be what determines whether or not the art and imagination of a child, or anyone of any age, is good. Creativity should be appreciated what it is: Imagination that reflects the unique individual identity of each person. A look inside the heart and mind of the person who creates it. Imagination, dreams, and creativity need to be encouraged. There are stories to be written, art to be created, songs to be recorded, without fear of the judgment or criticism of the people that may encounter it.

I’m not encouraging the praise of mediocrity (which is a blog post for another time), but creativity and imagination should be encouraged for their own sake. Criticizing imagination based on someone’s adherence to socially constructed rules leads to disappointment and, ultimately, shutting down the imagination and leaving it to die where it got shot down. If stories and original art are meant to progress, imagination needs to be allowed to run wild and flourish. I hope to live in a reality where deviance from what’s normal is encouraged in all forms of art. Until then, I’m going to be trying to find my imagination again.

Note: I kinda wrote this stream-of-consciousness with little to no editing, so if it makes little to no sense or seems like there are jumps in logic or that I’m missing points, well, that’s why.

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