Build observation skills – Supercharge your imagination
In 1943 HMS Trident, a british T class submarine breached the surface and docked at its UK base in Blyth, Northumberland. Shortly after arrival and to the utter surprise and amazement of everyone on shore, the torpedo loading hatch opened up and out popped a reindeer.
Believe it or not, this is actually a true story. It actually happened. I’m still spinning about it.
What is your imagination telling you about this story? Are you trying to figure out a logical explanation or are you creating an amazing and unbelievable backstory? In other words, are you using your imagination in a realistic way or a creative way?
In situations like this where something happens and you can’t observe all of the details or you’re not told all of the details, you have to imagine them. It’s how we’re made. We love stories, but not if they’re incomplete, so if they come to us incomplete we will complete them ourselves.
1 – Realistically
2 – Creatively
This is where we try to make sense of what’s going on. So for example, in this reindeer submarine scenario, we’ll be trying to imagine the practical reasons the reindeer came out of the submarine. We’ll be thinking of how it got in there in the first place, what it was doing there, how long it was there, what happened to the other people in the submarine, etc, but we’ll be very down to earth about it. We’ll be referring to what we already know, what we’ve already observed about the world and how it works to fill the gaps in the story. We won’t be trying to create new ways the world works, bend the laws of physics, time or space and we probably won’t be thinking about ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Far Side’.
This is fun. It’s where we do break the laws of physics, time and reality as we know it to fill the gaps in our story. In creative mode we can do magic, bend time, make things appear out of nothing and disappear again. We can make animals talk and be just like people, even act like they have opposable thumbs and operate complex pieces of machinery, like submarines.
This is how creators make the most entertaining and inspirational films, stories, works of art, etc. Think of any science fiction film you’ve ever seen. There are always elements of reality in there, such as gravity, relationships, vehicles and even time itself. In fact, the more plausible and convincing the peripheral elements of the story are the more entertaining it is. This realistic backdrop or skeleton allows us to relate to the creation, however it always has some excellent, creative and unrealistic elements to it.
We have access to so much knowledge. Pretty much all of the combined knowledge of the human race is at our fingertips. This is wonderful fuel for realistic imagination but it makes creative imagination a little more difficult. Why? Because we already know of so many facts, scenarios, possibilities that we can slot into our stories to make them seem real. It leaves little space for bending the rules. It’s a bittersweet reality for the human race. Some of you who are reading this would have already googled the ‘reindeer in a submarine’ story and would have most of it laid out already. It’s possible to find enough facts to create any story out of any scenario and make it believable. This, however can be a real inhibitor to creativity.
Creativity requires going beyond what we’ve observed, removing our observations and inserting our imagination instead. It requires all of the same energy as realistic imagination but on top of that it requires extra energy, courage and willingness to break the rules of reality as we have observed them. You have to know the rules really well to know when and how to break them.
Ken Robinson puts it like this. “Creativity is putting your imagination to work”. It also requires great observation about the world around you so that you have enough observation fuel to make any scenario link to any event. As Steve Jobs put it, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
I’d love to know how you apply your imagination to your everyday life and examples on how you use it to fill in the gaps to create complete stories.
By the way, if you’d like to look up that ‘reindeer in a submarine’ story you can find it here.
I love the reindeer story. I didn’t google it: and my first thought was, someone smuggled it aboard for a good reason, i.e. they saved it from a bear or it fell off a passing wildlife smuggler’s ship or something… which is probably a mixture of logic and illogic.
When I’m writing I use a mixture of both logical and random imagination. The other day a friend asked me if the magical element in a recent story was a metaphor for death. Well… no, it was just magical. But I don’t mind how he reads it. And other elements of the same story were intensely based on reality, for instance the interactions between characters, and their reactions to each other.
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