Creative process triad: The past, memory, and imagination

In his poem, Prairie, the poet Carl Sandburg wrote:

I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes.
I tell you yesterday is a wind gone down,
a sun dropped in the west.  (1)

From the perspective of our need to move forward in our lives without dwelling unproductively on the past, this assessment makes sense.

But without memories of our past, both long-term and immediate short-term, it is impossible for us to have imagination.

The past is what idea historian Abby Smith Rumsey calls “the raw matter of imagination.”

And without imagination, there is no creative process.

Rumsey explains:

“Memory records the world as so. Imagination transposes it into the key of as if, transforming experience into speculation… [Imagination] is an intrinsic property of human memory, the foundation of our mental time travel, capacity for problem solving, and conjectural thinking.” (2)

(1) The entire poem is available online at; it is one of the poems in Sandburg’s 103-poem collection, The Cornhuskers, published in 1918

(2) When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future,
Abby Smith Rumsey, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2016
— Dennis Mellersh

About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
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