IMAGINE THIS Creating the Work You Love by Maxine Clair
Terri Schlichenmeyer | 10/13/2014, 10:53 a.m.
Imagine This is a guidebook to fulfilling one’s aspirations and harnessing creative energy that seamlessly blends thorough practical advice with the vivid language and pathos of memoir. Clair takes a lyrical, introspective look at pivotal experiences in her life, from growing up in a rural Kansas town to leaving an abusive marriage to quitting an established job at a hospital to become a writer—and draws out the crucial moments of inspiration as examples of steps along a universal creative journey that readers themselves can follow.
Clair has published acclaimed books of short stories, poetry, and a novel, and Imagine This is her first work of nonfiction. Her novel October Suite, a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for Fiction, was written on a Guggenheim fellowship and received widespread critical acclaim. Clair has now written a part memoir, part study in self-improvement that urges readers to follow their hearts, recognize and trust their moments of inspiration, stay busy, stay motivated, and satisfy their creative needs.
Maxine Clair is a poet, short story writer, and novelist. Born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas, she had a career in medical technology as chief technologist at a D.C.-area children's hospital before pursuing and earning her MFA at American University. She taught English until 2008 at George Washington University, where she currently holds the title of Professor Emerita.
Q. & A. with Maxine Clair, author of Imagine This
Your books always drew from the well of autobiography, to some degree, but Imagine This is the first that contains overtly autobiographical sections. Did you ever imagine you would write this?
My life and how I have experienced it is what I know. Memory and imagination are very closely aligned whether I’m writing actual fact or fiction. That familiar ground informs my writing process and the content. In my character-driven stories, the characters, events, and situations are invented. But their emotional and psychological responses to life come through the filter of what I know: as a maker, how aware I am of realistic possibilities. Stories flow from that. Universality flows from that combination. I am always pursuing expansiveness for my characters whether we call it “coming of age” or “coming to terms with life.” Inner conflict gives rise to outer conflict, and resolution follows the same inner-outer pattern. At some point, I wanted to go beyond the mental or psychological inner conflicts and explore metaphysical principles as the deeper cause and effect. The nonfiction form seemed to be the best fit, and so I chose it for Imagine This. In writing the book, I got to play just as deeply in language as I do in fiction. Though memoir can get dicey when I tease out what is and is not relevant to the work at hand, autobiography offers no such choice. For me, that’s the good news. Autobiography is necessarily a voluminous venture. I never imagined that I would not write memoir. And I never imagined that I would not find a way to include the metaphysical.
Did you find the shift from fiction to nonfiction difficult? Has it affected your prose or identity as a writer?
There was a clear hiatus in my writing, a time when I wondered if I would ever write another conflict-resolution story. With Imagine This, the difficulty in navigating the shift to nonfiction had more to do with sustaining coherence between the narrative slices of memoir and exposition that includes how-to exercises and examples. I did not consciously adopt other stylistic elements; my voice is my voice and I trust that that will always come through in the prose. Usually there is a moral imperative, and I must find a way to tease it out. I was aware of reining in my imagination when it wanted to take over the narrative. There seems to be a little more leeway for poetic elements to creep in as I write stories. Yet, in writing Imagine This, I found a sufficient degree of “poetic” freedom—it is hoped—to ward off any persistent infection of flat prose.
As far as identity is concerned, I am a writer. The marriage of content and form is a foundational notion to which I subscribe. The form is determined by what I wish to convey. These days, as long as the work is interesting, few readers outside the academy care what genre terms we use, or how we mix the elements. Critics, too, are probably willing to stretch definitions and hyphenate labels.
Who are your influences, in writing and life, and how have they made their presence felt in Imagine This?
I never like this question, because I don’t believe I can know all of the influences. Much of what influences us is unconscious. I am born into a certain place and time, and ideas and ways of expressing them can be pervasive throughout my sphere of living. But I will say what I have said many times, music is at the root of my love for language, and putting that together with any moral imperative, any idea that begs exploration can be put down in one form or another. Allowing that flow is my love for writing. My mother’s creatively-expressive music was my greatest conscious influence. Her gospel cadences shot through with jazz are still like cell memory, and that can never be lost. Improvisation finds its own way in language—consider the cross-over of scat-bob and rap. It found its way into my own voice. So maybe it’s in the DNA. When I encountered the women writers of the Black Arts Movement, like Toni, Alice, Lucille, N’tozake, Maya, June, Sonia, Nikki—I purposely omit surnames to illustrate the iconic stature of these women—there was a clear resonance. Rather than “influence” I believe I took permission from them. Yes, I stand on their shoulders, but at the time, they conveyed to me that it was entirely correct and life-affirming to make art of whatever you want to say in your own unique way, and let the power of it stand on its own merits. They expanded the canon for me when my vision of a canon was limited. Lo and behold, my voice was what having a “literary canon” was all about.
Did you find it difficult to wrestle concepts like creativity into practical, reproducible terms?
“Challenging” is a more accurate term for this undertaking. I was compelled to return again and again to my own simple, fundamental definition of creativity: bringing a no- thing into existence as something. Obviously this makes open-ended any discussion of the concept of creativity. It provides a platform from which I could marry the idea of creative expression as a portal to personal transformation, and some of the principles involved in manifesting anything in life. And since I could never put a dent in the volume of writings about such sweeping concepts, I could share my own experience of this avenue to transformation, which I see as a sacred journey. I believe that if Imagine This resonates with readers at all, it is because they are at a similar juncture in life. When you feel that there is more living inside of you than your life can contain, your life gets bigger. My conviction is that creative expression in any of limitless fields is a sure-thing avenue to a bigger life. I have spelled out ways of personal fulfillment and collective enrichment that come with such a venture.
Any final words of advice for struggling dream-seekers?
I want you to know that every life is uniquely remarkable. We can live making conscious choices about how we spend our time and energy or we can believe that life just happens to us. The choices you make about the work you would love to be doing are always tied to your life purpose, and will bring fulfillment. Finally, you create not what you want, but what you believe, and what you can accept. Wake up to wherever you are right now. Get clear about your passion. Keep going. The way to arrival and success is shorter now than it has ever been.