Imagination is at the heart of what we do as writers and also of how we become different stories, as individuals and societies. It is, as Mary Wollstonecraft says in a letter written in 1794,
the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture.
Imagination is the stuff of dreams, reveries, creativity and bold utopian hope that refuses to give up hope. And despite all attempts to co-opt imagination as commodity of the ‘the creative industries’ that can be deployed for profit, imagination remains free, a point that Ursula Le Guin makes with gusto in her lecture ‘The Operating Instructions’, included in Words are Our Matter.
The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human. […]
Children have imagination to start with. […] When children are taught to hear and learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs. … We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. … to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.
In short, imagination is both the path beyond reality and the tool for changing that reality, for coming home by imagining what home should be.
Imagining the way home — unwhere would that be?
Le Guin continues:
Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary.
Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it — whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.
All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.
This then is why imagination, a fundamental mode of being for writers, is crucial. How many of us, as children, found in books both solace and all the many different stories we could try on? How many of us found our language and people in the pages of something written in another place or time or in a created world that pushed us to imagine this one differently? How many of us have found a new perspective on life as the result of a story heard or read, a poem that shook or surprised us into new questions?
This sense of another vision (clairvoyance in its etymological sense of ‘clear vision’) is at the heart ot a debate between the visionary William Blake and the Reverend John Trusler who commissioned Blake to illustrate his sermons, expecting rather populist and pedestrian caricatures, which of course he never received. Instead Blake wrote to him:
… I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.
As we see, so we are and if we see through the eyes of imagination, hope and connections, what would that be like?
Living with paradoxes — what would that be like?
Imagination leads us home and changes our vision, it pushes us beyond the confines of reality in ways that then change reality.
Recently I’ve been learning the meditative practice of yoga nidra. The words mean ‘yogic sleep’ but it is not sleep in the sense of being unconscious. The body sleeps, but the conscious awareness remains focussed, even when it dips in and out of what seems to be sleep. It’s a liminal space that is not only deeply relaxing and nurturing but also creative, full of imagination.
And one of the possible parts of the practice is to hold opposites together during the meditation. The sensations of cold and hot, pleasure and pain, the images of peace and conflict, height and depth, experiencing night and day simultaneously … This holding of opposites not only challenges our dualistic thought-patterns but also pushes the imagination and the practices I’ve taken part in often include the questions
What would that be like?
How would that be?
This is also the territory of writers. The constant ‘What if?’ at the heart — a what if? that we can also explore in dreams, lucid or remembered.
Dreaming different stories — how would that be?
Many years ago when I was writing up my PhD thesis (in feminist theology) I dreamed the whole structure in a radically new way. I was on maternity leave at the time and sleep was sporadic and nights and days merged. The thoughts of the day and of dreams bled into each other easily and the new structure worked.
Since then I’ve dreamt characters for novels, structures of prose poetry collections and novels, lines of poems, images … Like meditative states, dreams are fertile spaces of imagining and many writers find riches there. In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche writes about how dreams, analagous to waking imagination, interpose their imagery and concludes:
Dreams carry us back to the earlier stages of human culture and afford us a means of understanding it more clearly
And in a short story in A Writer’s Diary, Dostoevsky concurs with the power of dreams when his protagonist, who had been about to commit suicide, dreams his own version of ‘the Golden Rule’:
And it is so simple… The one thing is — love thy neighbor as thyself — that is the one thing. That is all, nothing else is needed. You will instantly find how to live.
And it is not only culture, story and ethics that the imaginative realm of the dream can work its magic on. Exhausted and struggling to see the nature of the relationship of chemical elements, but frustrated that he couldn’t quite grasp the pattern, Mendeleyev fell asleep and,
I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.
(Paul Strathern, Mendeleyev’s Dream)
And so the periodic table of elements was born. Dreaming can bring different stories to life in the world we walk in by day. Dreaming is a rich inner world where we confront the self in its many aspects, including the shadows we often seek to avoid, and this rich landscape can also spill into our creativity, and into life. The artist and philosopher Etel Adnan puts it like this in Journey to Mount Tamalpais:
Dreams spill over on our days. For some people they never stop spilling: the visionaries, … something wild gets unleashed. Something of the process of dreams recurs […] We translate our dreams on paper and cloth, subduing them, most of the time, fearing that moment of truth which has energy enough to blow up the world.
But what if we give those dreams of a different story their power? How would that be?
Coming home again for the first time — when might nowhere become?
Utopian thinking often gets derisory treatment as wishful or even ideological thinking, but the imagination and vision to see the world not as the place as is but as a nowhere of possibility is often most beautifully enshrined in children’s books. Books like Thierry Lenain’s What If, vibrantly illustrated by Oliver Tallec and telling the story of an unborn child imagining himself into life and imagining a better world to live in; a world of unmanipulated thought, unpolluted and loving.
Fanciful? Of course. But human history is a series of extraordinary paradigm shifts that at some point would have been bizarre and beyond fanciful.
We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over…
(Nobody Knows My Name)
It is in our power, asserts Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity:
The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action …
And Le Guin concludes her essay ‘The Operating Instructions’:
Literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.
So let us imagine different stories, of ourselves, of the world —
How would that be?
Becoming a different story
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