The Panama Canal

Romance is the Panama Canal, an exotic place swathed in green, full of palm trees and coconut trees and ferns and rain forest. Perpetually hot and humid, squeezed between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is a marvel, a wonder of the world, an imaginative triumph. Yet it is also concrete and massive machinery and huge pumps, locks deep enough to accommodate ocean liners and Navy craft. It is waterways dug by monstrous backhoes and steam shovels, blasted by tons of dynamite, a vessel of earth lined with the bones of the men who died building it. The Panama Canal is real; the Panama Canal is romance.

I haven’t found romance outside the realm of reality. Romance has only worked for me when I’ve grounded it in reality. When I fail to understand, it’s because I forget the truth about imagination, which, of course, deals with the realm of the “might be.” It projects what doesn’t yet exist, at least not in its imagined form. In this sense, I always write in imagination’s playground; all writing—until it is finished—believes in what hasn’t yet been brought into being. Imagination requires faith.

But it also requires more. With all due respect to Dr. Einstein, my imagination is not more important that my knowledge; in fact, my imagination has no use without my knowledge—by which I mean my acceptance of reality–just as Might be has no use without is. Is constitutes the ground for might be. When I ignore or reject is, I at best postpone and at worst prevent might be from coming into existence.

When I’ve ignored the writer I am now, I haven’t done the work or created the conditions necessary for me to become the writer I want to be. When I’ve dealt dishonestly with my strengths as a writer, I’ve ignored my gifts and become discouraged. When I’ve failed to recognize my weaknesses, I’ve become arrogant and stagnant.

Imagination at its most powerful somehow sees into the nature of things at this moment of existence; it achieves insight into the possibilities that the current reality presents. The imaginative person sees the possibilities present in certain aspects of the current reality that others ignore. This imaginative insight only feels magical or fantastic to the rest of us because we cannot or will not accept elements of reality (or implications of those elements) that the creative person does accept.

We make the same mistake about imagination that we do about romance. Neither state of being or thinking revolves around some misty hokum, though both often feed on a sense of wonder at the nature of existence. The fullest love isn’t blind; it’s accepting of the strengths and the weaknesses and the possibilities of who or what is loved.

No writer can develop by turning her attention to only the “beautiful” or “good” in language or focusing only on the “ugly” or “bad” in language. The writer must recognize as much as she can all the aspect of language, accept them all, and keep her eyes and skill and intellect and imagination open to them all; the writer must learn to love language for what it is, not what she would like it to be, and she must not resent that it is not as she would make it. This is how I have to look at writing in general and at each piece of writing I work on in particular.


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