|Nabokov's drawing of a heavily spotted Melissa Blue, overlaid with the
scale-row classification system he developed for mapping individual markings.
Image via The New York Public Library.
We all grew up knowing about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. The truly amazing part of this process, however, is in the scientific detail of how it actually happens in nature. Here's where Imaginal cells enter the story. The term “Imaginal” has connotations of imagination, the process of creating new ideas and concepts of things that do not yet exist. In biology, the term is applied to Imaginal cells -- the cells, which have been dormant in the caterpillar, and which, after the caterpillar has dissolved into organic sludge, begin to create new form and structure. In other words, to imagine the future butterfly. Think about this for a moment -- about the wonder of imagining something that doesn't yet exist! Poetically named, Imaginal cells are the seeds of future potential, which contain the blueprint of a flying creature. Caterpillar to butterfly metamorphosis is a fascinating process. And it often reminds me of writing.
Sometimes I wonder if blueprints for our stories are already hardwired into our core, are part of our DNA, like the color of our eyes or texture of our hair. What if, like the idea of a future butterfly rooting in its caterpillar form as it waits to emerge, these stories only need to be unlocked, coaxed into existence. Alas, as much as I may wish it, it's unlikely that our books come with a hardwired map, special markers, or color-coded identifiers. Unlike butterflies, they don't evolve on their own, but emerge through a painstaking process that is part planning and part intuition. All we have to guide us on our journey is the vague instinct of how to tell the story and the whimsical movement of ideas through our minds, like streams of water seeking a new path, forging one as they flow. Writing a book is an act of creation, of drawing the innermost to the surface, of taking it from the realm of the abstract into the realm of the tangible. It is a great transmutation of ideas into words, an alchemy of tone, rhythm and meaning, as close to real magic as one might hope to come. It is imagining something into being, gradually, patiently, giving it form and structure and voice and wings. Making it strong and fleet and bright and, above all, flight-worthy.