Midwinter blues got you stymied? Help is on the way, just like spring. Here are two books and a field trip designed to reenergize a sluggish imagination.
First up is Jeff VanderMeer’s freshly revised and expanded Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. It is a book on the craft of writing, specifically designed to support the creation of speculative fiction. VanderMeer himself is an exquisite creator of deeply imagined worlds, and in this book he invites his friends along. There are essays from Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Lord, among many, many others. The book is a buffet of practical advice, encouragement and exercises. You can work straight through from beginning to end, or pick up bites here and there when your imagination gets a little peckish. It opens with an extensive section devoted to the care and feeding of the imagination: Inspiration and the Creative Life. VanderMeer’s thesis is that inspiration is not a single moment of magic where all things become clear but:
Perhaps there is a muse hovering about and waiting to strike. But VanderMeer and friends emphasize the importance of developing habits of imaginative play. He cuts to the heart of the debate over what has the greater value: literary fiction or speculative fiction. He takes to task those who would dismiss the fantastical as some frivolous pastime, and celebrates the attributes of curiosity, receptivity, passion, and the immediate moment of experience. He also explores negative emotions that inspire, using the metaphor of a scar or splinter, “some initial irritant, some kind of galvanizing and enduring impulse,” that combines with the need to communicate a story. VanderMeer offers exercises, verbal and visual, to get you going. There are thoughtful essays on beauty, on mystery, and encouragement to embrace the strangeness of the imagination. Wonderbook contains a wealth of resources to help us to protect and nurture our imaginations.
Another great book for the midwinter shelf is Hatch!: Brainstorming Secrets of a Theme Park Designer. Author C. McNair Wilson is a former Disney Imagineer whose mission is to nurture creativity wherever he finds it. McNair consults with corporate types to coach them in creative thinking, and Hatch! is organized around seven agreements to be made by a group whose aim is to generate ideas. But beware: the voices that shoot down ideas and put the kibosh on creative play don’t always come from outside us; all too often those voices are internal. Hatch! gives permission to go play, makes it an imperative. Sometimes that is just the boost needed to quiet the internal voices of judgement that sit in a writer’s mind, ready to extinguish sparks of inspiration before the flames have a chance to flare.
The hidden gem in McNair’s book is his section on “The Doodle Factor.” It includes McNair’s “Fearless Field Guide to Doodling & Visual Thinking.” Here again the reader gets encouragement to grab a notebook and “play: doodle, scribble, and make a mess, on every page, everyday!” What follows are practical tools, and exercises to try. There are inspirations for stick figures and beyond, tips and tricks. Messing about in a creative journal is essential practice for McNair. It’s a place where you can paste in maps with doodles of your path, draw around rings left by a wine glass, caption stains left by the candle wax from dinner in a pirate’s cove. Included in the final section is a bibliography of other books on creativity, inspiration, and how to fan the flame.
If the weather’s giving you cabin fever, try a field trip to Natura Obscura, an art instillation at Englewood’s Museum of Outdoor Arts built by a collaboration of over thirty artists. It’s an immersive journey through a fantastical winter wood in the manner of Meow Wolf. A mermaid dances in a waterfall, a yeti peeks out from between the trees, fire crackles and flames leap when you approach a hidden alcove. Skulls of monsters, encrusted in sparkling gems, peek out from illuminated flora. Strange birds fly overhead, and there are more than the usual number of owls. There are rich interactive elements too, so be sure to download the app for augmented reality animations that come to life throughout the woods. Creatures appear and call you by name while they extol the virtues of the different elements they represent in helping you to unleash your creative self.
A blacklight flashlight (provided upon entry) reveals secret messages one word at a time. Encouraging quotes appear in the voices of writers from around the globe and across time: Muir, Rumi, Le Guin, Gibran, Shakespeare. Leaves fluttering in the trees are inscribed with wise sayings. Sounds fill the air: the trickle of water, the crackle of fire. Wind rushes through the trees.
Ancillary exhibits branch off from the winter woods. In one room, inflatable stalactites hang from the ceiling while mysterious figures roam about, deeper in the cave. In another, the environment of sound an light changes as you press on silver tubes in the center of the room. There is a space where the viewer sits, surrounded by a circular screen, to watch A Monk’s Journey: Canyons to Stars. The thirty-minute movie begins with a trickle of water in a subterranean cavern, moves through landscapes of rivers, canyons, and oceans, finally ascending to soar through Hubble’s Deep Field.
Along another set of hallways is the MOA’s permanent exhibit, A Cabinet of Curiosities. Inspired by the esthetic of a Victorian-era naturalist, the hallways are packed with ephemera and memorabilia from fairy tales. The invitation for Alice to play crocket is here, and so are seashells sold by the seashore, Little Red’s riding hood, grandfather clocks, dinosaur bones. Overhead, the ceiling flies away into the stars, one tile at a time. Natura Obscura and the associated installations will be in Englewood, Colorado at the Museum of Outdoor Arts from January 11 until April 28 this spring. Go visit, and get ready to bloom!