I have just returned from a small family gathering where I met one of my two cousins for the first time. For whatever reason I had not only avoided meeting this relative over the years, but had also never seen so much as a single photo of him.
Strange to have a mental image of someone for forty-four years and then meet the actual man. My picture of him had been cobbled together from years of family stories – the sports, the rebellious teen years, the Air Force, the children and marriage – and from the fact that he was born and raised in California, which meant he was of course blond.
I do not need to tell you how little he resembled the person I had imagined, right down to the hair a few shades darker than mine. It was as if a character from a book I had read had walked up and introduced himself to me in a hotel lobby.
This may be why we are so often disappointed by cinematic versions of our favorite books. Who really wants to be told exactly what Jay Gatsby for Humbert Humbert looks like? Although the power of a writer’s craft lies in the specific detail, the imagination often thrives in a world of shadow and mystery, and a seasoned writer honors and trusts the reader’s imagination.
Despite the wealth of solid things all about us, our worlds are constantly being invented, as malleable and fluid as any river. It doesn’t matter whether we are writing books or starting families, our futures are planted in the rich topsoil of our imagination, vague and similar as seedlings, but accumulating specificity over time. We fill in all the colors and shapes and sounds to build from what could be what some day is, and the experience we call living is actually us being propelled forward by the creative need to meet the world we are every day imagining.