“Imagination is more important than Knowledge.”
So said Albert Einstein, thus inspiring today’s blog, a continuation from last week’s blog, which was about researching the taxi driver’s ‘knowledge.’
In that case, ‘knowledge’ was the thing London cabbies need before they can start transporting passengers around the metropolis. In Einstein’s case,
‘knowledge’ meant learning, what facts we have accumulated and, literally, what we know.
So, what he’s saying is pretty clear:
it’s more important to imagine than it is to know.
Thinking that, reminded me of the old adage, ‘Write about what you know.’ How many times have I heard that? I remember being told it at school when we had to write essays and short stories for English classes. However, I also remember when I was first inspired to write creatively, and here’s a little story that, unless I lose my train of thought, will point up the idea of creativity and imagination being more important than knowledge.
Soon to be Twelve, Never Been to Egypt
I am sitting in the library of an independent school in Folkestone, Kent. The wall opposite is filled with books, my best friend is sharing the table with me, and there’s a man with a beard facing us and the rest of the small class of uniformed pupils. It’s March 1975, and I am a few days away from being twelve years old. A few days ago, the television news carried the appalling story of a tube strain disaster at Moorgate station in London, where 43 people died because the train failed to stop and drove into a wall at speed. Not exactly the subject for a discussion during an English lesson with Mr Whitney, housemaster, historian and all-round inspirer of pupils. After a discussion about the train crash, our homework was to write a short story inspired by the event, which you might think was a little unusual or bad taste, but that’s the British public school system for you.
So, off I went after school, walking up the road to the bus stop with John (the best friend), discussing not English homework, but Hammer Horror films, because he collected the magazines, and we both liked the films, and having said goodbye, I continued to the bus stop and went home to write my short story.
Flashback: 1972, I am nine years old and in a long queue, eventually entering a huge building, walking through echoing halls and into dark chambers to wonder at the gold funeral mask of a pharaoh, Tutankhamun, and other treasures. Flash forward a couple of years, and I am watching one of the Universal ‘Mummy’ films, Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney Jr., it doesn’t matter which, I am fascinated by pyramids, Egyptian tombs and things buried underground.
Flash back to the story, and I am sitting down to write my homework based on the tube disaster. Of course, I didn’t know what it was like to be involved, I’m not even sure I’d been on a tube train by then, so all I had to go on were the images I’d seen on TV and my imagination. Oh, and my interest in Egyptology, such as it was at 11 years old.
My story, presented at the next English lesson, concerned a team of archaeologists investigating a pyramid, when that pyramid collapsed. All I remember of it were limbs sticking out from beneath rocks, dust, darkness, screams and other horror elements, and the ending; a man in a hospital bed where instead of flowers in the vase, there were the same dead arms and legs. I also remember the praise I received after its presentation in class. Mr Whitney singled it out because it had a beginning, a middle and an end, and told the whole class he’d chosen it for singular praise because I ‘Didn’t once mention a blessed train, like the rest of you. Imagination! It is far more useful than knowledge.’ Or something very similar. He then, rather annoyingly for an 11-year-old, told me it needed improvement, and I was to write it out again in my best handwriting, but not to copy it. What he did was tell me to write a second draft, thus teaching me the pain and value of editing.
The point of that story was simply to highlight the title of this piece, that you don’t always need knowledge to write creatively, and to be truly creative, imagination is more important than knowledge.
Now hang on a minute… We can take the opposite view with no hassle whatsoever and be perfectly pedantic by saying: You need to know how to write. Ah ha! See, that’s knowledge. Yes, and quite right. Except, as far as we know, Homer never wrote a word, he spoke his stories, as that was the only way to pass them down back then. He didn’t need to know how to write, he needed to know how to tell a story, but storytelling is in all of us, whether it comes out in the written word or spoken, in art, journalism, comic books or gossip; we all have the ability to tell a story.
Yes, but… I know what you’re going to say. How can you write about something you know nothing about? How can you write a story set somewhere you have never been, or about something you have never experienced, or have no knowledge of?
Yeah, yeah, blah-di-blah… Tell me, dear sceptic, how many times did Shakespeare visit Italy to research his Merchant of Venice or any of the other 13 plays he set in the country? Did Bernard Cornwell OBE fight against Napoleon, or live among the Anglo Saxons of the Dark Ages? I think not. Yes, writers research, and some who write historical novels are learned historians, but they’ve still never been back in time, and let’s not mention Azimov or Arthur C Clarke, and others who write science fiction, fantasy or steampunk. Come to that, Bram Stoker never went to Transylvania or, as far as anyone knows, got bitten by a vampire or had his head chopped off.
Write about what you know, and if you don’t know about it, research. That would be a better maxim, in my book.
Ideas are the Seed of all Achievement
I found that delicious quote, from journalist, Anastasia Haralabidou, in an article titled ‘Great Ideas: Is imagination more important than knowledge?’ (2015, you can find it here.) In her article, she points out how imagination has inspired knowledge. Example: an apple falling from a tree and narrowly missing Isaac Newton… Why did it do that? How come it fell and didn’t float away? And there we have gravity.
It’s a case of saying ‘What if?’ and then following the what if to a conclusion, and to do that, you need to use imagination, not knowledge. If you don’t have the knowledge, you can gain it, if you don’t have the imagination, well, frankly, you’re scuppered. As Haralabidou also says in her article,
“Imagination is the highest freedom of all and the one that no one can deprive us of.”
How good is that? We all have an imagination, it is as inherent as storytelling, and you don’t need knowledge to release it, you only need to know that you can, and we all can. Some with more success than others, I grant you, but it is within us all to tell stories, and if those stories are set in a time or place about which we know nothing, then, like a soon to be 12-year-old transposing what he’d seen on the news to the pyramids of Giza, we research what we must, and imagine the rest.
This all reminds me of another saying I heard once many years ago which has always stuck with me. Prevention is better than knowing who did it. That, I fancy, might be the title of a future blog.