What Happens to Our Imagination As We Get Older?

What Happens to Our Imagination As We Get Older

Children are active and imaginative. What happens as we get older?

I began writing fiction as a senior in high school. The first short story I wrote was in Mr. Yachymiak’s creative writing class in Cornwall Central High School and was motivated by several spiritual books I was reading at the time. Richard Bach was my go-to author at the time: and The Bridge Across Forever.

The short story I wrote was called The Gift of Flight (a play off one of Bach’s titles, A Gift of Wings, which conflates spiritual freedom with his love of piloting). My story was about a man fed up with life who tries to commit suicide by throwing himself off a cliff into the sea. He transforms into a bird during his plunge toward the water (thus satisfying the anthropomorphic qualities of Jonathan Livingston Seagull) and, strengthened and energized by the sun’s radiance, soars loftily into the clouds above where he undergoes an equally important spiritual transformation as well. I had an active imagination back then!

Getting Busy: No Time Left for Imagination?

It’s more than 20 years later now and I have experienced much of life that happens in the world of human beings–marriage, parenthood, the loss of loved ones, travel, work, friendship, family, hard times, good fortune, happiness, pain and sorrow. I have sometimes embraced God and, at other times, I have worried too much about my worldly problems to see beyond the nose on my face. I have developed wisdom but lacked it in other areas. I have strengths but glaring weaknesses.

My life is insanely busy. My wife and I raise our three-year-old son just outside Washington, DC and we both work full-time jobs. We have no family locally to call upon for assistance, which means responsibility to take care of our son fall squarely on our shoulders.

And yet my obligations have not snuffed out what has always been important to me. I still have an active imagination and I still write.

The responsibilities and challenges that greet us in the world of adulthood can distract us from a spirit that burned so brightly in youth and brought to mind possibilities, hopes and dreams. Life and its commitments are not for the faint of heart and, as that life proceeds, it can corrupt. Disappointments have the potential to twist us into angry, violent or solitary people.

What Does Imagination Mean for Adults

But, as I mentioned, I continue to write. This, someone might argue, should likely also be a source of disappointment. Writing has never brought me economic awards or status. I am not Stephen King, Amy Tan, Salman Rushdie or John Irving. One could argue that writing has had its social benefits as I have friendships with other writers. Yet, one does not need writing to have friendships. Indeed, one might enjoy more relationships if one would just step away from the keyboard and pick up the phone.

Yet again, and this is the point I debate so frequently, I like to think the importance of writing is that it keeps me connected to the innocence I experienced when I was younger, when my imagination ran rampant and made me write stories without self-consciousness or self-awareness. At least that is what I tell myself. In this way, writing is my project to try to stay good despite hard experience.

Even further back in my life than The Gift of Flight and other stories I wrote was my early childhood and an even more visceral imagination. Imagination! It makes the world a boundless playground, blurs the hard edges of the physical world that restrains and binds. Who wouldn’t want that kind of dreaming to continue, though years pass and obligations multiply? The world of imagination was innocent then, filled with excitement and adventure. Those stories I wrote in Mr. Yachymiak’s class were pure and spiritual because I dared hope and believe in the future.

Later in life, it becomes difficult to invest in that unfettered realm of imagination when the coarse material world closes in, bats one about and bloodies one up when thoughts stray, behavior wanders or you dare color outside the lines. One false step and you’re done for! Creativity needs nurturing to thrive, and the weather of this world is a maelstrom seeking to squelch it at every turn.

Writing as an adult is, I say again, an act of preserving youth, a plug into the days of innocence. Writing turns obligation into a life of something like a state like purity. No agenda exists, no desire, nothing but the sublime experience of creation and discovery.

Imagination’s Darker Side?

My contrasting wonder, however, is that writing later in life may really be but an act of sad realization–and that the innocence that drove our dreaming as children has gone. In this scenario, the imagination is weighted by the challenges we have faced as adults. Writing, in contrast to what is described above, is not a deft liberation from shackles of responsibility. The imagination that drives our stories now is framed by our past fears, failures and pains and returns us, again and again, to those times and places from our lives that haunt us most. We gift-wrap hard memories so that they may appropriately be called fiction. But imagination, as a kind of playful innocence, has been lost.

Does the imagination darken in this way as we get older? Does it morph from the world of happy adventure into an act of hiding someplace from our ugly experiences?

Let A Great Artist Decide

What gives me heart is a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” This has stuck with me over the years. (Picasso offers much wisdom about art and life.) The good news is that he doesn’t seem to doubt art can restore childhood’s innocence. Picasso believes it difficult but that imagination and creativity truly represent a restoration of something more pure.

That is reassuring. To write under darker circumstances would make writing a futile, navel-gazing endeavor. Critics like to point to themes that appear consistently in a writer’s work. And many writers may willingly discuss the bridge between their art and their life. But I don’t think many writers would keep doing what they did if they thought they were merely prisoners of the past lacking freedom to create something new through imagination.

I continue to believe in hope, in possibility and the creation of a better future despite life’s adversity. Perhaps personal burdens as memories accumulate like boulder’s in a hiker’s backpack, but I think possibility only truly vanishes for those who voluntarily give away hope.

What are your thoughts on the imagination? Do you believe your writing restores your freedom and makes you like a child again, or is merely an indirect reflection of past pains? If you are a reader, do you believe the world of imagination provides an escape from your life or do you think you read while enjoying in a child-like fashion the innocent fantasies of adventure?

Two theories. Which is right? Please comment below.

About Joe Kovacs

I am a writer of literary and horror fiction pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, and a proud husband and father. To contact me, fill out the form in the right column and click submit.
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