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Monday, March 15, 2010

Primers of the Imagination

Two writers on a bench, scribbling what they see. Same park, same sky, same joggers and nannies and dogs. If you leaned over their shoulders and read their words, however, no two pages could be less alike.

It’s impossible to dissect the infinite variables of education, environment and personality that mold an author’s content, voice and style. There isn’t a formula for raising an Austen or a Tolkien. We are all anomalies, and yet, there is nothing new under the sun. Every author stands on the shoulders of some giant.

As a children’s librarian, I’m fascinated with a piece of the puzzle that is often neglected—the fiction that influenced an author’s childhood. Perhaps we cannot realize just how sovereign these stories are until we examine their offspring: the stories their readers create.

My life changed,” says Printz award-winning author Melina Marchetta, “from the moment Anne hit Gilbert Blythe over the head with a slate and I think I’ve been writing that scene metaphorically ever since (think Francesca Spinelli and Will Trombal’s exchange about Trotsky/Tolstoy in Saving Francesca).”

Children’s author Edward Eager’s official biography reads, “In each of his books he carefully acknowledges his indebtedness to E. Nesbit, whom he considered the best children’s writer of all time—“so that any child who likes my books and doesn’t know hers may be led back to the master of us all.”

This tradition is continued by National Book Award-winning author Jeanne Birdsall: “When I was 10 or so, I learned that Edward Eager wrote his wonderful set of books partly in tribute to the great E. Nesbit. Since I loved these authors, I vowed that, when I grew up, I would try to write books that would be tributes to both of them.”

In Mervyn Nicholson’s intriguing essay, “C. S. Lewis and the Scholarship of Imagination in E. Nesbit and Rider Haggard,” he examines the “way writers absorb, transmute, and recreate earlier writing. This kind of scholarship … is a theory which is simultaneously a practice, like the ability to improvise in music. In essence, this scholarship of the imagination is a matter of studying, with sensitivity and thoroughness, how other writers have handled the elements of story in the past as objects of imagination rather than as "texts," with an eye to using them oneself. Hence the scholarship of imagination is intrinsically a matter of reading…”

This scholarship was recently evidenced in headlines such as, “Madeleine L'Engle returns to Newbery medal, thanks to A Wrinkle in Time,” referencing 2009’s most distinguished children’s book, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, a book which, the Guardian article continues, “tells the story of sixth-grade New Yorker Miranda, caught up in reading L'Engle's time-and-space-travelling tale, who begins to receive notes that she believes are from the future and which could help prevent a tragic death.” When You Reach Me would certainly not be the same novel without its author having loved L’Engle as a child.

Nicholson’s essay, however, focuses on the work of C.S. Lewis, arguing that “this process of absorbing/transmuting [is] mostly unconscious, and it proceeds with all writers of importance; it is not a matter of "borrowing" (still less copying or plagiarizing) but of recreating.”

He draws attention to the books Lewis read as a child, “the writers who deposited the first layer of imaginative materials in Lewis' psyche. Some of these Lewis speaks of, and some he does not; some are major figures, some are marginal.... This group includes H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Rider Haggard, and E. Nesbit, among others (including L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Oz books). Again, these writers are either not Christian at all or are not concerned with Christian apologetics; they belong rather to the efflorescence of romance around the turn of the century—around the time Lewis was born and the period of his childhood and youth—and they provided, in effect, a primer of the imagination. They gave him a vocabulary from which he would always draw, for both materials and inspiration. Again, Lewis' extensive use of these materials was not "plagiarism": rather, it is typical of the way writers build on and create out of the work of earlier writers. Hence his use of them illustrates the creative process itself.”


This process, concludes Nicholson, "accounts in part for the resonance and magic of his scenes: they were themselves the product of the magic of creation--indeed they derive from a stream of imagination which stretches "beneath" Lewis' work into the writers who inspired him when he was as young and receptive as the eager Caspian..."

Whether or not the influence is conscious, adults would not be the humans they are without their childhood experiences. In a similar way, writers could not tell the tales they do without the childhood stories that baptized their imaginations.

6 comments:

Mike Duran said...

Wonderful piece, Noel! I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' encounter with sehnsucht, which he chronicles in "Surprised by Joy." A German word that means “longing,” but is almost impossible to translate, it has to do with “desire” and “nostalgia” of the deepest kind. Lewis describes sehnsucht as an “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” His first experience with sehnsucht was not while studying philosophy or theology, but while reading Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin". Evoking that "inconsolable longing" seemed to become a trademark in much of Lewis' fiction. I guess we have Beatrix Potter to thank.

Janna Qualman said...

Your posts are some of my favorites here at Novel Journey, Noel!

Thanks for the engaging content. :) And I love that photo. What an awesome writing prompt it it.

Noël De Vries said...

Sehnsucht was related to the numinous in Lewis' mind, wasn't it?

I'm afraid it doesn't just go back to Potter, Mike. In John Goldthwaite's The Natural History of Make-Believe, he looks at the way Potter took most of her material from the Uncle Remus tales, to the point that she was reluctant to publish.

But that only reinforces "my" theory!

Thanks for commenting, Janna! Happy writing (and reading).

Gina Holmes said...

Interesting thoughts, Noel. I haven't considered this before. I filled my head with mostly fairy tales, but A Wrinkle in Time was my favorite book. It will be interesting to go back and reread it, which I plan to do soon.

Sheila Deeth said...

Fascinating post. Fascinating journey through writers and memories.

Marcia said...

Great post, Noel. Thank you.