The other day I was walking with my father in my town. I’ve lived in Lafayette for eight and a half years now, but grew up ten minutes away in Pleasant Hill. We walked past the old movie theater, the Park. “Any movies playing?” Dad asked.
“No, it closed ten years ago. I always thought I would buy it someday.” I realized that I said it past tense. When I was working for a startup, I used to pass by the Park and think: I’m going to buy that theater. We need a movie theater in Lafayette! How can I live in a town that doesn’t have a movie theater?
I decided I’d run old movies every week, movies that fit my mood. If I owned the theater now, I would have a James Garner movie marathon. I’d also show Do the Right Thing, The Muppet Movie, and The Women. I knew I was dreaming, imagining.
I always had a great imagination. I had to. My childhood was bumpy, so I had to imagine that something better was coming along. Imaginations are necessary for writing; otherwise how can you write? It was pure imagination that gave us Harold and his purple crayon, Harry Potter. I read two novels recently that show how important imagination can be to simply live out the day.
The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear (author of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries) is set at the beginning of World War One. Kezia marries Tom, a farmer. A novice cook, she makes meals for Tom and the field hands. When World War One breaks one bank holiday, Tom decides to enlist. Wanting to provide comfort to her husband, Kezia describes a meal she is “fixing” for him to keep his spirits going, while she’s lucky to find bread and milk. The letters are a salve for Tom, while his fellow soldiers look forward to hearing about what Kezia’s food (they are running out of rations) A commanding soldier has it in for Tom, and Kezia’s letters might not be enough to save him.
American Blonde by Jennifer Niven: This is the fourth Velva Jean book Niven has written, and by far my favorite. Velva Jean is my kind of girl: she has a huge imagination and is determined to take what her dying mother said to heart: live out there. In previous novels, she has been a housewife, a pilot, and a spy. What’s next? Movie star! She returns home a hero after saving her brother’s life. One day a man from MGM comes around, asking if she wants a movie contract. The big draw is singing lessons. Since she’s an aspiring singer, Velva Jean jumps at the chance. She goes to Hollywood, then is renamed Kit Rodgers. Soon she finds out that the cliche is true: all that glitters is not gold. And that someone she loves dearly will pay for old mistakes.
What I loved about both novels is how imagination helps the characters cope. Let’s be honest here: imagination never has been fully embraced in our culture. When I was a freshman, I was told there were special classes I could attend so I could learn a trade. I could learn to cook. Or weld. Or put beads on string. They were tailored for students with learning disabilities. It meant missing English class, so I refused. “Why? We can talk to your teacher,” my counselor said.
“I don’t want to miss English,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer. I need to learn all I can.”
“But Jennifer, writing can’t pay bills. Besides, all the other students are going.”
“That’s fine for them. Not for me.”
The counselor looked at me, then asked in a smug voice: “Then what are you going to do for work?”
“I’l work at the library. Or a bookstore. I’m going to be a writer.”
I know now she wasn’t coming from a bad place. However, it was imagination that kept me going. I wanted to write big fat paperbacks that you’d buy at Thrifty’s, where the heroine had a glam name like Coral or Flame. I’d live in a house like the one in The Colbys. I didn’t want to cook or weld. I didn’t want to put beads on string. I was going to write. I was going to be around books.
Of course reality is a pain: I don’t live in a mansion. I don’t write fat paperbacks. But I truly believe Willie Wonka was on to something when he sang: There is no Life/ I know/ To compare with/Pure imagination/Living there /You’ll be free
If you truly wish to be/If you want to view paradise/Simply look around and view it/Anything you want to, do it/Wanta change the world/There’s nothing/To it.
Amen, Mr. Wonka.
P.S. I am still dreaming I’ll buy the Park. Maybe not right away, but someday!