The imagination is like a soil in which things grow, some as yet unseen beneath the surface, others small and requiring nurture if they are to survive, many thriving and growing rapidly into a multitude of forms.
Newly-formed soil is made up of fragmented pieces of the underlying bedrock of which our planet is made. This soil will have all the plant foods that were in the original rock, but noticeably lacks one essential element — humus, the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil microorganisms. Extending our analogy a little, we could say that the human imagination in a pre-morpheme/phoneme state, is composed of raw sensation and perception from inner and outer worlds. Just as soil will not contain humus until life itself — that is, things that were living and have died and are in decay — puts it there, so the human imagination will not be complete until it has digested or absorbed some means of expressing what it contains. Only with humus does soil become really complete, fit to grow the vegetation that sustains all animal life on land; only by imbibing some means of expression at the basic level of morpheme and phoneme does an imagination become able to grow the ideas that sustain all aesthetic and intellectual life.
We might labour this analogy further: soil derives itself from many kinds of rock and so there are many varieties of soil. Imagination develops from many kinds of environments. The stories we might have an inkling to write do not always find themselves embedded in the right imaginative soil. A master author must learn to make the best of the soil that he or she has.
A broad classification of types of imagination may be attempted, but some knowledge of vacuums, as described in the book How Stories Really Work, may be needed in order to proceed:
Depending on the nature, number and size of their vacuums, imaginations can be classified as light or heavy, with an infinite range of gradations in between. ‘Light’ in this context means composed of a large number and variety of vacuums, which can come into existence and be filled with relative ease; ‘heavy’ means composed of a smaller number of vacuums, though they are often immense in size.
Examples abound, as we are talking about the fundamentals of all literature. A writer of comic or epic tales finds an abundance of small or large vacuums in stories, ranging from character vacuums to linear, mystery and morality vacuums of all shapes and sizes. Pure comedy is the lightest ‘soil' you can get. But ironic horror is the heaviest.
The terms ‘light' and ‘heavy’ in this context have nothing to do with style but with the kind of result produced upon the reader. A writer can produce comedy, and otherwise work with it, no matter how tragic or ironic it is, and produce an uplifting effect; dark and savage horror, though, is hard to develop beyond rigid boundaries, and, like clay soils, can get very emotionally sticky, lingering in readers’ emotional nervous systems long after the story is done.
What we call imagination generally is what is visible about the surface of the unconscious 'rock' from which its most fundamental particles are born.
Deep literary tales such as we see in the novels of many master authors, send their roots right down into the subsoil, and extract these fundamental particles from it. The nature of the unconscious, when it comes to writing fiction — in particular, literary fiction — is very important because of its influence on reader attention. If the tale is linked with a heavy imagination, for example, then the attention will linger and the reader be emotionally affected for a longer time; if it is connected to a lighter imagination, the reader will probably be unaffected for more than a brief period.
Below the subsoil of the unconscious lies raw reality, and that goes on down to the centre of this universe of floating, unformed, uncharacterised meaning with which we began.
We'll take a look at the types of imagination next.