In a fantastic essay in The Wave in the Mind, ‘The Operating Instructions’, Ursula K Le Guin notes that imagination is humanity’s single most important tool.
She considers that while the concept of the ‘creative’ has become watered down, ‘imagination’ retains its power. It is a fundamental way of thinking, she argues, something that is innate but which we can learn how to use well, in a similar way to training the body.
During a period of travel around Spain, as I take time out of my normal life and immerse in imagining and writing, it’s encouraging to consider how vital imagination is.
So, how do we train the imagination?
Le Guin is adamant that we learn it best from literature, whether oral or written.
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, there is nothing like a poem or a story.
Through story every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people.
This is powerful encouragement to writer. As I work on a complex story that has at it’s heart questions of identity and how we transform ourselves, it’s timely to remind myself that flying with the imagination promotes
- a sense of identity and renewed self-image
- autonomy within community
- deeper understanding
- alternative possibilities
- a sense of purpose and quest
That is a powerful tool with vast potential.
Imagination gives you a sense of identity and renewed self-image
Imagination is fundamental to how we see ourselves. If you think about how you saw yourself as a child, it’s likely that imagination played a huge role in what you decided to do as an adult. We play with dolls to imagine parenting. We have pretend cookers, pretend surgical kits, write plays that we make our families perform … Imagining leads to decisions, to seeing ourselves as a doctor, teacher, priest, writer, mother …
As a writer, I’m fascinated by the intersection of imagination and identity. My protagonists in the Casilda trilogy have searching questions about where identity begins and ends, about how we make connections across time and culture.
Imagination and identity are both internal processes. We have to imagine who we are before there are any external processes. Being comes before doing. Spontaneity then becomes a vision that we hand over to the unconscious and let it do its work. Moreover, imagination is a safe place in which to take risks; we can imagine outcomes before trying them out.
The philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, sees imagination as productive and creative. Ricoeur argues that imagination transforms reality through creative acts. Moreover he considers that the imagination that helps us form identity is most clearly manifested through fiction, which creates meaning. Similarly, Sartre saw imagination and narrativity as necessary for the formation of a coherent and meaningful sense of self.
In short, the story of who we are is an act of imagination. As Kurt Vonnegut puts it:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Imagination fosters autonomy
Home is imaginary. Home imagined comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t go there unless your people show you how to imagine it.
All of us have to learn how to invent our lives … we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.
— Ursula K Le Guin
It takes generations for a community to arrive at an agreement of what life should be. Sadly, these traditions, over time, can ossify into dogma. This is a problem. Yet the converse is also problematic: with no sense of tradition and no social consensus, the proliferating alternatives become disorienting. Rather than finding ourselves shaped by dogmatic traditions, we find lives conforming to a multiplicity of exterior voices, including powerful media.
The ideal is to have the freedom to imagine life within a wider stream in which others have imagined a life that makes sense. This balance of listening and freedom is the ideal when the myths of our society are alive and life-giving.
You have to think something is possible in order to work toward it. As Linton Bergsen says:
Having a vision is critically important to substantiating the meaning of your life and validating the reason you are here. Every single one of us has a vision. We may each call it by a different name — a dream, a wish, or a hope. But how do you get from having a dream to seeing it come true?
The long answer? Many things need to be set in motion and accomplished before your dream manifests itself. The short answer? It begins with imagination.
Imagination is the only state of mind that allows us to be free from the limiting reality we live in.
Two years ago I had not imagined that I could take time out from my work as an editor and director of an independent press to nurture my own writing. I wrote, but it was always squeezed into the margins of a life consumed by working seven days a week. But, despite loving my work, this was unsustainable. I had to re-envision my life not only to stay true to myself as a writer but to maintain the joy and passion for the editing work.
It began with imagination, which fostered the autonomy to reshape how I use time with benefits to both the independent press work and the writing I’m producing.
How do you need to imagine and invent your life?
Imagination leads to empathy
Imagination and empathy are close cousins. The philosopher David Hume believed that the sentiment of empathy is what motivates us to act well towards other people. Whilst we may have no direct access to the minds of others, imagination allows us to empathise. If you scald yourself by dropping a pan of water, I can imagine that pain and consequently care about it.
Conversely, when we don’t imagine what something feels like for someone else the consequences can be dire and far reaching. Robert McNamara, who was the US secretary of defence during the war in Vietnam, has since said that this human catastrophe was due to
a failure of imagination.
A failure of imagination that is in turn a failure of empathy takes its toll in human life. A failure of imagination about what the earth we are living on is suffering takes its toll in horrendous ecological disasters that will in turn blight the lives of future humans as well as animals. We need to imagine in order to care.
And story is vital form of imagination for empathy. As I edit the third novel in the Casilda trilogy, I’m finding that certain scenes still move me to tears after several reads. This is because I have imagined these characters over the last four years. I’ve lived with them. They may be fictional, but the act of immersing in the story of other people who we can imagine as real is a powerful way of honing empathy.
Imagination promotes listening and brings us together
Where do we find such imagination? Within stories. Le Guin notes that reading is a perfect mode of listening, which allows both autonomous thinking and yet joins us to others. Reading has a huge range of benefits to commend it as a way of taking in the stories that feed the imagination and unite us with those who have gone before. (It’s an interesting aside that the trend to listen to audio books at speeds faster than speech — at 1.25x or even 1.5x — is something to avoid if you want to retain the ability of reading to increase your listening whilst respecting your autonomy.) Reading is:
- at our own pace
- within our control (we pick a book up and put it down as we need so it need never by overwhelming)
- not selling you anything
- puts you in communion with another mind
- joins you to someone in an act of imagination
Books remain free of co-option … because a lot were written by dead people … and many living poets and novelists … continue to be motivated by the wish to practice their art, make something well. Books remain comparatively, and amazingly, honest. … Literature remains the most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.
— Ursula K Le Guin
Imagination enlarges the field of possibility
Failure of imagination is everywhere. In politics the doctrine of TINA (There Is No Alternative) has been with us for many years, but it remains a lie. The problem is that envisaging the alternatives is difficult. This is once again an area in which imaginative literature can break the impasse. In the words of Le Guin:
Having … the power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power …
The imaginative fiction I admire presents alternatives to the status quo [to] … enlarge the field of social possibility and moral understanding.
We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we cannot imagine freedom.
Imagination, through story and through our internal processes, is vital. As Einstein put it:
Imagination is everything. It is the preview for life’s coming attractions.
We only get that preview if we stop thinking that are no alternatives and allow our minds to roam more widely. Whatever culture or conditions we have currently created, they are not absolutes but the products of previous imagination. The possibilities are endless if only we will imagine them. To quote Einstein again:
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
We can change the illusion. As he says elsewhere:
I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
In the story I’m imagining the characters go beyond possibility. This might be a metaphor. It might be posing questions of reality or of perspective. What matters to me in this trilogy is to write something that pushes at the boundaries of how we think whilst exploring universal connections between people.
Imagination nurtures a sense of purpose and quest
If one advances confidently in the direction of his [or her] dreams and endeavours to live the life which s/he has imagined, s/he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
— Henry David Thoreau
In The New Psycho-Cybernetics, Malz says that a clear mental picture, that is a sense of direction, changes lives. We act in accordance with what we believe to be true about ourselves and our environment. In short, if you imagine that you are a failure or that you live in a context that will not permit you to change, grow or expand, then you will fulfill that belief.
On the other hand, if you make a conscious decision to change, imagine what that change would be like to live and embody, and then communicate this to your self-image, it will have enormous impact. In short:
You must have a wholesome self-esteem. You must have a self that you can trust and believe in.
Once we begin to value ourselves and to imagine other ways of living and recreating our environments, huge shifts occur. Every new development at some stage has to be an act of imagination.
Five years ago, I did not believe that I could take two months out of a year to travel and write and still sustain a small press. Now I think I need to imagine more deeply, to nurture my creativity and imagination more and trust what follows. As Jung puts it:
Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.
Every quest begins with imagination.
Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.
— Elizabeth Gilbert
Imagination is what makes us fly and as J M Barrie, author of Peter Pan, warns:
The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.
Becoming a Different Story
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.