Why writers need reverie

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Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

The creative life is one that calls us to dive deeply —

  • into the world we observe and witness to
  • into the bodies we inhabit so that we never forget our creatureliness and connection to all life
  • into questions of meaning that might be insoluble but demand asking
  • into our interior worlds
  • and deeper still into the unconscious

The call of creativity is exhilarating and profound. It speaks not to the busy, bustling ego consumed by the dictates of ‘content’ and ‘productivity’, but to what Mary Oliver, writing in Upstream, calls a third self, neither child not ‘servant of the hours’.

This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.

This self is dangerous. S/he has a wild self-forgetfulness prepared to live

  • with mystery in the face of our finitude
  • in solitude for sufficient periods to create deeply and in flow
  • courageously, taking apart every assumption in order to make something new
  • in vulnerability with the ever-present chance of failure
  • imaginatively, colliding ideas and adjacent possibilities
  • slowly, following the pulse of the work rather than deadlines and fixed outcomes

The creative life is intrinsically radical, laden with values that are the antithesis of consumption and speed and a utilitarian life. But it is also a life of abundance, rich in

  • soulfulness and renewal
  • joy and connection

All of this requires that we feed and water the creative life and there are, of course, many ways to do this. Journaling and reading widely and voraciously are excellent ways to give our creativity power and time. Activities that relax and renew us, from walking to visting art galleries, from a good meal with loved ones to a bubble bath, also give us the space to nurture our interior landscapes and allow ideas to germinate.

But to lose our sense of time and satiate a hunger for eternity we also need a sense of awe and an ability to fall into reverie.

Rising into reverie

The best writing constantly recreates nature and experience in new images and combinations of language that transport us. When our own writing soars and resonates with our readers then we are part of enchanting others into a state of reverie. How often have you almost missed a train stop because you were ‘lost’ in a book? How often has a meal been late or a room left unhoovered and dusty because the next chapter or poem was just too compelling?

Images and language are strong magic. Narrative and poetry conjure and entrance us. The imagination contained in stories, writing of any genre, is, the philosopher Gaston Bachelard believes, the most comprehensive idiom of all imagination.

If we are to create such spells (bearing in mind that the etymology of ‘spell’ is rooted in tales and myths) then we have to know the state of reverie ourselves.

In The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Bachelard says:

… concepts and images develop along two divergent lines of spiritual life.

Images are the realm of the soul (not a religious term for Bachelard, who was a humanist) but there are two kinds, he considers in the essay, ‘Water and Dreams’:

  • picturesque images are novel but skim the surface

but the others:

plumb the depths of being: there they seek at once the primitive and eternal. They rise above seasons and history.

Entering, or rising into this state of reverie, is not quite equivalent to dreaming. As Bachelard notes in The Poetics of Reverie:

In contrast to a dream a reverie cannot be recounted. To be communicated, it must be written, written with emotion and taste, being relived all the more strongly because it is being written down.

Rather it is a relaxed state of consciousness in which we combine perceptions, memories and the archetypes of the unconscious and are transported and uplifted.

We reach this height in a state of flow. We fly into it as readers, but also as writers. Quite simply, we write ourselves into reverie using the oneiric material of dreams, archetypes and memories as nourishment.

The solitude of reverie

There are reveries so elevated, reveries which help us ascend the hights of imagination whilst reaching deeply within ourselves, that they alter our consciousness. In this state, we hardly remember our own names. In this state we are not fit for company, but require deep solitude.

Bachelard puts it like this in The Poetics of Reverie:

The cosmic reverie … is a phenomenon of solitude which has its roots in the soul of the dreamer

[…]

Cosmic reveries … situate us in a world and not in a society. The cosmic reverie possesses a sort of stability or tranquility. It helps us escape time. … It is a state of mind…

This resonates with what novelist and physicist, Alan Lightman describes in A Sense of the Mysterious:

Although I was oblivious to myself, my body, and everything around me, the fact is I was completely alone. I don’t think any other person in the world would have been able to help me at that moment. And I didn’t want any help. I had all of these sensations and revelations going on in my head, and being alone with all that was an essential part of it.

The otherness of reverie

In this solitude, soaring at great heights, extraordinary creativity takes over. Paradoxically, this state of mind, whilst requiring solitude, is far from being a state of disconnection. Bachelard puts it like this:

Poetic reverie gives us the world of worlds. Poetic reverie is a cosmic reverie. It is an opening to a beautiful world, to beautiful worlds. It gives the I a non-I which belongs to the I: my non-I. It is this “my non-I” which enchants the I of the dreamer and which poets can help us share.

In this beautiful world, self-forgetful but connected to all life, what takes place is both deconstruction and construction. Imagination is a game of taking risks with old images, breaking and remaking them, combining them differently and surprisingly. To quote Bachelard again:

Poets [or any creative writer or artist] lead us into cosmoses which are being endlessly renewed.

Writing from reverie turns our works into invitations to extraordinary journeys. ‘Come and breathe in these new images … Travel with these images to places you have never been … ‘ the writing beckons, as we write it and as our readers engage with it.

This, of course, requires a good deal of upheaval. In this sense, all writing, from an astonishing and elegant scientific theory to a poem; from a philosophical treatise to a novel, is travel writing.

In the realm of imagination, every immanence takes on a transcendence.

It invites our minds and souls to be mobile and supple, to be willing to fracture old ideas and images, live with doubt and negative capability and sojourn with mystery and risk.

Changes will occur which might be catastrophic unless we are brave and flexible and humble enough to traverse the explosive imaginative power of reverie. But the promise is equally compelling: the openness and newness is utterly captivating. Bachelard sums it up:

To perceive and to imagine are as antithetic as presence and absence. To imagine is to absent oneself: it is a leap toward a new life.

We are back again with that wild self-forgetting that is at the heart of our connection to all things and to joy.

The solace of reverie

The pursuit of happiness can be an elusive goal, a creature likely to disappear in the hunting. Yet writers know how powerful the sense of fulfilment and deep joy can be when we are so far inside our creative processes that the world falls away.

Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Reverie:

Reverie illustrates repose for a being… it illustrates well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness.

[…]

in it, everything becomes beautiful.

[…]

Reverie helps us inhabit the world, inhabit the happiness of the world.

Connection and reverie

Whilst this is powerful and heady material, it is not fanciful. Words like ‘flight’, ‘cosmic’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘transcendence’ do not imply that writers should enter a state of reverie as an act of escapism. The imaginative language of heights and the soaring sensation of otherness are always grounded and connected. This is how Rilke puts it, quoted in John Linton’s The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge:

… in order to write a single verse, one must see many cities, and men and things; one must get to know animals and the flight of birds, and the gestures that the little flowers make when they open in the morning. Each contemplated object, each evocative name we murmur is the point of departure of a dream and of a line, a creative linguistic movement. How often, beside a well, on the old stone covered with wild sorrel and ferns, have I murmured the name of the distant waters, the name of the buried world. How often has the universe suddenly answered. O my things, how we have talked!

In Water and Dreams Bachelard resonates with this:

In order for a reverie to continue with enough persistence to produce a written work, for it to be more than the simple vacuous pastime of a fleeting moment, it must find its matter; a material element must give the reverie its own substance…

And in Air and Dreams he builds on it, talking about how the inner world in turn projects images onto the external world, a complex interaction in the process of which the writer is herself re-written and transformed.

We are changed by the stories we write.

Becoming a different story

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re there, download my free courses, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story

Written by

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

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