The Creative Process: Imagination

Statue of Diana, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Poipu, Kauai
My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

The following excerpt, beginning on page 29 of the book, details the start of the imaginative journey that became my first published book, The Hollow Kingdom. This incident took place the day after Joe and I dropped our daughters off at boarding school.

The following morning was completely different from any day that had preceded it. Since Valerie’s birth, the welfare of the children had shaped every one of my days. Now they weren’t here, and I wasn’t worried about them. My day seemed to have no shape.

Joe sensed this.

“What do you think you’ll do with yourself today?” he asked me over breakfast.

The thought completely baffled me. I felt simultaneously lighthearted and numb. I felt as if I might be walking in my sleep.

“Maybe I’ll do some cleaning,” I said. “Maybe get a little ironing done.”

“My shirts are starting to pile up,” Joe agreed, getting up to rinse out his coffee cup.

I kissed him good-bye at the door, and then I took my own cup of coffee and wandered the empty rooms. Nothing moved, and nothing made a sound. The old Dalmatian was asleep on his rug. Our old cat might as well have been a couch cushion.

For the first time in fourteen years, I had no children to plan for or care for. I had no job, no schoolwork, no errands, and no projects. I had not a single thing, in short, that had to get done. It was a phenomenon I could barely comprehend.

I’ll clean, I thought as I drifted through the silent spaces. Now that I’m alone, I can get this house whipped into shape. But I didn’t—because, with the imagination I have, it turns out that I am never alone.

When I was little, my imagination terrified me with glimpses of disaster, but it also helped me escape my lonely childhood. I spent days at a time shut away in my room, staring at the wall while my imagination played its movies. Every book I read, I moved into and took over, and I turned my own characters loose in that world to see what would happen. I played with other worlds the way some children play with Legos.

That was fine when I was young and lonely, but once I grew up, I decided that my imagination was a waste of time. All it did was steal energy and attention that ought to belong to others: my family, my home, or my employer. I realized that I must be the only manager in the library who spent half her break time staring at a blank wall.

Through careful attention, I slowly learned to conquer my imagination. It was like stopping any bad habit—like getting a handle on nail-biting. I would catch my mind as soon it started to wander, as soon as I saw that first few seconds of new film. Then I would stamp a neon-green X over the image.

But now, as I sat on the sofa in my empty house and drank my cup of coffee, that mischievous imagination crept up on me unawares. Little by little, a forest of tall, twisted trees wove itself around me. It grew until the walls of my living room faded out, and I could see that it spread for miles: wild, verdant woodland, engulfing tumbled hills and rugged boulders. Beneath its mossy boughs, narrow paths wound away into the shadows.

What is this place? I wondered.

England. Northern England. At the edge of this forest stood an old English mansion. Nearby, sheer cliffs fell to the surface of a deep blue lake.

Who lives here? I wondered.

And two people walked out of the forest, hand in hand—a young woman and a girl.

Who are they? I wondered.

By this time, I had forgotten about cleaning my house. I had forgotten that I even had a house.

The two girls were sisters, Kate and Emily, and they wore dresses with the empire waists and long, trailing skirts of Regency-era England. They appeared to have stepped out of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I realized that Kate, at least, would have loved to find herself in Pride and Prejudice. But, bad luck for her, this was not a Jane Austen world.

There were surprises waiting for the two sisters in this tangle of hoary trees. I glimpsed a large black cat with huge golden eyes—I could tell right away that he wasn’t a regular cat. I spotted a short, ugly gypsy woman who read palms and told fortunes—I was positive that she wasn’t a regular gypsy. I saw a tall, stooped man with a black hood over his face—I was sure that he wasn’t a regular man. He was a brilliant magician and a magnificently ugly monster. He was Marak, my goblin King.

I had sensed Marak’s presence in that twisted old forest even before Kate and Emily had stepped out of it. As soon as I saw that land, I knew it belonged to him. I am fond of every single character in each of my books, including many of the villains. But the goblin King is the oldest and best beloved of all my character children.

That day, Marak’s story unspooled itself before my eyes, a movie that was playing just for me. The first time Kate, my Jane Austen girl, got a good look at him, his ugly face was peering at her out of her own mirror. While Kate stared at him, I forgot entirely that I had breakfast dishes to wash. I forgot that I had promised Joe I would iron him some shirts. I even forgot that I should probably make at least some sort of effort to defrost dinner.

What does a goblin look like? I wondered. What does Kate see?

Long hair—rough hair, like a horse’s mane. Shrewd eyes in two different colors, one eye green and the other eye black. A lean, pinched face, bony forehead, sunken temples, deep-set eyes, and pointed ears that flopped at the tips like a dog’s. Shiny gray skin, brown lips, and dark pointed teeth—teeth like tarnished silver.

Marak’s hair was all one length, brushing his shoulders in a shaggy mane. It was pale beige. Or was it? The image came into clearer focus, and I saw a palm-size patch of black hair growing in a cowlick over the green eye. That black hair cast long sooty streaks over the pale hair below.

While I sat and studied this brilliantly ugly monster, a sudden sound jarred me out of my reverie. The front door. The front door? It couldn’t be! But it was. The workday was over, and Joe had come home to admire his newly cleaned house and ironed shirts.

“Oh, hey!” I called, jumping up. “So, I was thinking of French toast. How does that sound to you?”

Over the dinner we threw together, Joe said, “I thought you were going to clean today.” But he said it philosophically—almost dispassionately. After fifteen years of marriage, he had learned not to count too much on my homemaking skills.

“It’s this new daydream,” I said. “It’s keeping me from getting any work done.” (And was that a circle of ancient oak trees on that hill?)

“What’s the daydream about?” Joe asked.

“I don’t know. A goblin King.” (A king of what, exactly? And why were his eyes different colors?)

I didn’t expect Joe to ask any more questions. He had heard me make similar complaints for years. I had been at war with my imagination for our entire marriage, and I had complained about it the whole time. Joe is reassuringly immune from this weakness, so I didn’t expect goblins to interest him particularly, much less where they lived (jeweled caverns? Yes, and the twilit, indigo-tinted lands below the lake) or what they ate. (Sheep? Yes, sheep probably made the most sense.)

But this time, Joe surprised me.

“Why don’t you write it down?” he said.

The idea didn’t immediately appeal to me. It sounded suspiciously like work.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle, text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a statue of Diana, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Poipu, Kauai, copyright 2016 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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