use your imagination

As a teenager (and, let’s face it, as an adult) I read science fiction. Perhaps as a result, for a long time I thought that in order to write fiction you had to be imaginative in the sense that you ‘made something up’. I thought being creative had to do with ‘letting go’ and moving beyond myself, the present, this world. But I’m slowly realising that being creative has a lot to do with disciplined mastery and that being imaginative is all about seeing clearly and unveiling reality.

That is, if you are trying to figure out why the custard is curdling, or why the car won’t start, or why the community isn’t using public transport, you are in the process of using your imagination to try and unveil what is really going on. As Matthew Crawford insists (Shop Class As Soul Craft p 100), both the artist and the mechanic get outside their head — use their imagination — not to escape the world but to join it.

In short, even when it’s set on an alien planet, good fiction will help you see reality more clearly.

Literature is not simply a replica of reality; it penetrates the surface layers and reaches deep into the inner workings of reality. It removes false illusions, looks down from great heights at ordinary happenings and, with broad perspective, reveals these happenings in their entirety.

Of course, literature also relies on imagination, but this sort of journey in the mind is not just putting together a whole lot of rubbish. Imagination that is divorced from authentic feelings, and fabrications that are divorced from life experiences, can only end up insipid and weak.

Gao Xingjian (translated by Mabel Lee) (2006), The Case For Literature, Fourth Estate, p43.


  1. Good translation (assuming translated from Chinese). She used a lot of imagination translating something into “a whole lot of rubbish”.

    1. If you find the original in Chinese, I’d love to hear about how you’d translate it! Or at least your reflections on some of the ambiguities of translating the Chinese to English.

  2. I did find the chinese script. Hard going reading through a topic very foreign to my brain.

    On that phrase, she did a good job. I would’ve said ‘non-sense’. For a bunch of other possibilities, google translate this: 胡說八道

    Re: Chinese to English: the one thing that English can not do is to translate the visual/graphical/pictorial (not sure which word to use) part of the language. (In case you dont know, each chinese character is like a picture that speaks one word.)

    1. I just did as you suggested and ran google translate… it looks like both you and Mabel Lee chose rather polite ways of representing that phrase. The more translated Chinese texts I read the more I wish I understood Chinese language! It always feels like there’s more under the surface that is just slipping through my fingers…

  3. well, it was a speech wasnt it? and i dont think Gao was being rude. and chinese ppl are usually very polite on the surface.

    well, if you are reading things less than 80 yr old, you are not missing out much. things between 80-120 year old wont be that bad. Things older than that, I need to translate them into today’s chinese. Reading Confucius in English always gives me the chuckles.

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