Jim Henson was one of my heroes. His imagination was constantly in motion, and when I look back at my favorite Muppets skits and segments, I can't help but think he was playing more than working, as were all the Muppeteers.
Every innovator has this quality, this ability to play, tinker, tweak, and piece together words, shapes, objects, musical notes, colors, ideas, you name it. Speaking for myself, it's what makes being a fiction writer so much fun.
But if you take a moment to explore your favorite books, films, songs, inventions, etc., you'll find that they're all the result of "rearranging old ideas in new combinations." Jeff Bezos rearranged the idea of buying consumer goods. Steve Jobs rearranged the idea of the personal computer. Jim Henson rearranged the idea of puppetry. Vidal Sassoon rearranged the idea of haircutting. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band album rearranged the idea of recording music (as did Brian Wilson with Pet Sounds). Madonna rearranged the idea of musical performance. Georgia O'Keefe rearranged the idea of painting. Suzanne Collins rearranged the idea of "good vs. evil" in her Hunger Games trilogy
And so on. In other words, we're not creating something out of nothing. We're creating something using the cells of something else combined with new cells.
As writers, our imagination is perhaps our greatest strength, the instrument we rely on most to complete our task of writing. We are constantly searching for new ways to tell old stories -- boy meets girl, girl meets boy, rags to riches, riches to rags, the aforementioned good vs. evil -- and more. We explore new worlds, new people, new relationships by first examining old, familiar ones. We aim to put words together in ways we haven't before. We seek to surpass the cliche, ban the banal, transcend tradition. We go into the sandbox of our minds with a pail and shovel, and build sandcastles, mudpiles, and look for buried treasure.
We write the books we want to read.
The world around us is our lens. We observe, witness, filter, and interpret. Inspiration comes to us spontaneously, often when we're not looking for it, when we're staring out a window at nothing, or driving on the Long Island Expressway at night, or washing off the day in the shower. We read our favorite writers, listen to our favorite bands, watch our favorite shows and films, eat our favorite foods, look at our favorite paintings, wear our favorite clothes. And we open ourselves to new songs, new books, new shapes, new ways of doing things. Our imaginations feed us, but they demand to be fed as well. They also demand to be listened to.
Authors need imagination to be successful, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, no matter the genre. But these days we can't limit our imagination solely to writing. We now need to imagine new and better ways of reaching readers, of promoting and selling our work. We need to imagine how to make a living as a full-time author, complete with benefits and retirement plans. We need to imagine new kinds of bookstores, libraries, reading and writing spaces.
And then we need a plan to make it so.
In The Law of Success, Napoleon Hill says that every business, industry, and profession needs the dreamer. "But, the dreamer must be, also, a doer; or else [s]he must form an alliance with someone who can and does translate dreams into reality." Moreover, "Your mind is capable of creating many new and useful combinations of old ideas, but the most important thing it can create is a definite chief aim [italics his] that will give you that which you most desire."
What do you most desire?
For more on imagination, I highly recommend Jonah Lehrer's book Imagine, which explores how imagination works in the brain. Oh, and watch the Muppets -- the originals, with Jim Henson and Frank Oz.