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  • Susan May

Throwing Imagination Out With The Bath Water

Imagination is a muscle. I know this because when I didn’t use it for years, in a storytelling way, it shrunk. For a long time, I couldn’t conceive a story idea even if it hit me in the head and wrote itself. And that lasted twenty plus years.

Later, when I did throw myself into storytelling, it took months of writing, (the only story my mind possessed for the past ten years), before other small ethereal ideas began alighting upon me. My imagination was slowly awakening, and with that awakening began a trickle and then a flood of story concepts. They were everywhere and so abundant that I have now given up writing them down. No longer do I worry if I will run out of ideas. Instead, I worry if there is enough time left in my life to write all the good ones.


This post isn’t about imagination or story ideas, though. It’s about a worrying trend—and it could be just me worrying—but did you know that narrative creative writing makes up less than fifteen per cent of the Australian English curriculum? Check in your own country, I imagine its' similar.

Several teachers have recently informed me that the emphasis for literary education was in the writing skills needed in everyday life—persuasive writing, reporting, and letter writing. They told me that narrative writing would definitely be important for a writer to study, but that very few children were going to grow up to be writers. (They really should check Twitter. There seems to be millions on there).

These reports and persuasive argument skills are the more important literary tools in the automated programming necessary for their University years, work and everyday life, they tell me. They are teaching them to write letters too. Even though, I don’t know anyone who writes personal letters, except my seventy-eight year old Aunty—and she doesn’t own a computer.

I wonder though, if you have an encouraged, resilient imagination through creative writing wouldn't that translate into more interesting letters and reports? It worked for me. In a misguided attempt at an MBA, I received a distinction for an essay for which I had hardly researched—I had two babies at the time. The tutor commented, ‘I have given you this distinction not for the content because I’m not sure if you really nailed it. You score is for how much I enjoyed the read.’


In the sixties and seventies, during my school years, narrative writing was all we did, interspersed with the occasional review of a book or poem. Of course, as you would expect of a writer, English was my favorite subject and the only reason I wanted to attend school. All the other subjects bored me and once I achieved a reasonable understanding of math I thought, well that will do me for life and I no longer listened.

I flunked history and geography because, frankly, I couldn’t see the point. My cocky, fifteen-year-old self advised the poor cooking and sewing teachers that I did not need to learn to cook and sew because I would be rich and have servants. What an imagination. right? In German, I cut a deal with the teacher that as long as I passed then I did not have to attend class. Subsequently, I spent those lessons down by a creek near the school reading and writing. Had I attended school now, with this lack of emphasis on narrative expression, would I have seen writing as my future?

Whether a child’s destiny is to become a writer or not, is not the point of narrative writing as a child. One of the most valuable tools a person needs, writer or not, is not mastery of the English language but imagination. And, for me, imagination trumps all skills and education.

My imagination, encouraged throughout my school years by creative writing exercises, has taken me further than being a writer. It helped me imagine distant lands I wanted to visit, which from age twenty I did and continue to do. It helped me see a business opportunity in my late twenties that became an exciting multi-million dollar success. Everything created within that business opportunity came, not from my education, but from my greatest asset, my imagination—an imagination fertilized most fervently whilst writing stories at schools. A LOSS?

I am saddened to hear that our children will lose precious opportunities to utilise their imagination. This is particularly poignant in an era where the gift of imagining, and maybe not education, have delivered us Steve Jobs,who dropped out of college after six months and spent the next 18 months dropping in on creative classes. Then we have another imagination major, Steven Spielberg, who in 2002, after a thirty-five year intermission, finished his degree via independent projects at CSULB, receiving a B.A. in Film Production and Electronic Arts with an option in Film/Video Production. Hardly something he needed to do to continue his success.

Since the emergence of man, stories have told our history and encouraged our future. Whilst we are preparing our children for their adult lives, could the educator’s also find a way to encourage their student’s dreaming lives?

These young people will all too soon spend a long time, as adults, writing their pragmatic reports and persuasive texts. Could we just allow them a few short years with their unicorns, wizards, pirates and fairies? Let us encourage their imaginations to flex and grow whilst they are young, so that one day they may not become a robot in a system, but a person who remembers imagining they were a robot and dreaming of saving the world.

I leave you with Yeats…

People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind. ~William Butler Yeats

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