In the Fish Tank

I tend to come down on the ass-in-chair side of the debate between inspiration and perspiration. But, there’s something else here.

If people are going to survive they will need to do this on the plane of the imagination much more than they have done. Otherwise, they’ll simply become a mark on some consumer chart.

– J.G. Ballard, p. 253, Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008


Throughout his life, J.G. Ballard spoke in interviews about his belief in the power of our imaginations to save us from the homogenizing of the western world in the late twentieth century. The oracle of Shepperton may have foreseen the rise of algorithms in 1991 when he made the remark quoted above. I’ve always been willing to believe in the possibility of precognition—something you can scarcely rule out if you accept time as flat or the multiverse as possible. To say that every day we are being reduced to a number is as bold a statement now as declaring the sky blue. We are reduced by algorithms. We are reduced by the judgments of others. We are reduced by the bizarre idea that by automating every act of creation—from making our own meals to writing our own correspondence—we will somehow be happier and not just empty. So how does this impact the imagination; that tool meant to set you free?

I tend to come down on the ass-in-chair side of the debate between inspiration and perspiration. But, there’s something else here. Often, maybe more often since January, when I have sat down in the chair, I haven’t been alone. I’ve been keeping company with what Rollo May described as the anxiety and panic of transitioning from one era to another. Some days I find this company so oppressive that I can barely wrestle my mind free to focus on my writing. These can be some of the darkest moments of life—realizing concretely that even my inner space isn’t free from colonization by the people and culture around me. The imagination seems more fragile than mighty in those moments; it’s the paradox of creativity.

I think the imagination is something like an ecosystem. Or maybe a fish tank with its ever shifting pH levels. I didn’t know any writers or artists when I was growing up. So I mostly heard them described as depressive types, usually on the verge of suicide or alcoholism. These were comments by people who had no real understanding of the paralytic quality of depression or the experience of creating a world through writing. Creation happens in spite of depression and anxiety, not because of it. So how do we do it? How do we avoid becoming colonized by the negativity of others? Sometimes people will tell you to fake it until you make it, but if there’s one thing that’s always poisoned the water in my creative fish tank it’s faking it. I don’t have the answers, but am looking forward to exploring this question. How do writers manage their ecosystem? How do you manage your ecosystem? Is there “a way” or what seems more intuitively likely to me, an endless multitude of ways? I hope to find out.

Ballard, J.G. Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008. London: Fourth Estate, 2012.

May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1975.


Right now, somewhere in the multiverse, I’m walking around in a house in the northern woods with a copy of Bullfighting in the pocket of my robe and a mocha in my hand. The house is lit by beeswax candles. Outside, it’s always twenty-six degrees and snowing.