The Process of Imagining

batA while ago I wrote an article entitled How to Imagine that included these ten ‘rules’ to spur your imagination:

  • Pay attention: Stand still and look until you really see. The more you see, the richer the palette you have for your imagination to draw on. If you want to imagine a monster, look at an insect up real close. If you want to imagine a perfect world, watch the life emerging after a thunderstorm, the droplets of rain on leaves in the sun.
  • Spend time with children: If they’re young enough, the imagination has not yet been pounded out of them by television and games with stupid rules and teachers telling them to stop daydreaming. Listen and play with them and your imagination will come back to you, creaking through the rust.
  • Remember your dreams: Keep pencil and paper beside your bed, and write down what comes to you just as you fall asleep and wake up, or those rare vivid dreams that awaken you in the middle of the night. These imaginary thoughts are more real than real life. They change you. Don’t lose them.
  • Change your point of view: Lie down and look up. Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot
  • Collaborate: Work with other people, ideally those who have imagination, and who think very differently from you. Have fun with it. Open your mind to other possibilities. Strive to produce something greater than any of you could have come up with alone.
  • Transport yourself: Go somewhere different, physically or intellectually. Read lots of fiction and poetry. Visit places you’d never have thought of going. Stay with the locals. Volunteer. See how the other half lives. 
  • Improvise: Explore your mental images. Go with them. Make something out of nothing. Imagine what you’d do if you needed to do something and didn’t have the tools. Look inside the windows of your mind. Briefly, slough off your protective arrogance and be open, submissive, vulnerable. 
  • Break the rules. Or at least change them. Whatever the game, or the business process, or the routine, change it. Don’t always play Texas Hold ’em. Play Countdown instead. Combine stuff. Make stuff up
  • Believe, and make believe: Pessimism kills imagination. See past what is to what is possible. Create a new world, fantastically different from the real one. 
  • Get away from the media: Formulaic television and radio and newspapers and magazines get you thinking that that’s the only way to do these things. Video games are tyrannical, leaving no room at all for imagination. Shun all things linear. Like top 10 lists.

All well and good, one reader wrote me, but what’s the process for imagining — how do you put these rules together into a step-by-step method that will allow you to truly imagine, quickly, consistently and powerfully?

As I’ve said before, imagination is not the same as creativity: You can only ‘create’ from things that are real, while you can imagine things that have never been and could never be real. Imagination, unlike creativity, is not constrained by what is possible.

But at the same time, our brain can only conceive by analogy and metaphor from what our bodies can perceive, so our imaginations are very much bounded by the limitations of our senses. That is why imagining a ten-dimensional universe is so difficult, and why most of the creatures in sci-fi are so absurdly humanoid. What’s worse, we are programmed from an early age to believe that imagining is a useless, escapist activity (remember what they did do the daydreamers in your school classes). Imagination is tolerated in children’s play, but we press children to root their imaginings in reality (by virtue of the almost brutal and constraining ‘realism’ of dolls, games and other toys we give them). Children are encouraged and rewarded to direct and restrict their imagination to imitation — role-playing the behaviours of ‘real’, idealized people (doctors, firemen etc.). Soon, their imaginations begin to atrophy from lack of exercise and practice. And they turn into us.

So what is the process for exercising and stretching the imagination so that that capacity returns? How can we regenerate the capacity that allows some to imagine and then create a geodesic dome, invent a truly new language, or conceive of applying the light polarization principles of butterfly wings to anti-counterfeiting techniques for banknotes, the painting of aircraft, or the invention of ecological eyeshadow?

It’s hard to explain what is, to me, an easy and intuitive process, to someone who might find it difficult and not at all obvious (now I appreciate the frustration of the instructors who, throughout my life, have tried and failed to teach me how to swim, to dance, or to meditate!) But here goes:

Preparation & Practice Steps (these are things that, if you do them regularly, will enable you to imagine more easily and powerfully when you want to or need to):

  1. Continually think about possible applications of new learnings and discoveries: Whenever you are learning, reading, or perceiving, allow yourself the time and space to think about how what you are ‘taking in’ might be applied in interesting or important ways. If the character in the novel you are reading uses an intriguing painting or gardening technique, think about how this technique might be applied in forensics (could you write a CSI script around it?) or energy conservation (think: protective coatings) or teaching (think: the power of demonstration and visualization), or how it might apply in any other area that you care about
  2. Play games that encourage and teach you how to make stuff up: Instead of prescriptive games that constrain your imagination, play games like Balderdash that practice and reward the imagination.
  3. Open your senses: By paying attention to what you are really seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, or even dreaming, and by ‘taking in’ all the details, you are creating perceptual memories that you can later draw on to imagine. Look closely at that blade of grass and you’ll see that it’s actually a little green stick-like insect perfectly camouflaged to protect itself from predators. And describe again how in that dream last night you managed to fly by inhaling hydrogen into your lungs and using the same arm and leg movements that allow you to float on a body of water.
  4. Study nature: The natural world around us has evolved astonishingly complex and effective adaptations to problems, needs and barriers over millions of years. Because our civilized world is so new, so focused on narrow, transient, merely-complicated needs, and largely throw-away, unconcerned with the durability of its products and solutions and their adaptability, this civilized world is one of (by comparison) great imaginative poverty. By spending more time in the natural world and learning from it you will automatically be opening yourself to more imaginative possibilities. You will learn the art of metaphor, which is a springboard to imagination.

Putting that Preparation & Practice Into Action (here’s the actual step-by-step when it comes time to actively and purposefully imagine):

  1. Motivate and energize yourself by setting a bold, positive objective or purpose for your imagining: Direct your imagination to some objective, a positive purpose that you care about. While it’s fun, true imagining is also work, and you’ll do best at it if you have a personal incentive to persevere at it, and to give it time. While dystopias may sell better, we are more inclined to spend time thinking about utopias. And if our imaginative thoughts make us happier, more positive, energized about possibilities, we will give them more time and energy and do a better job imagining as a result. And be bold in setting that objective: You’re not going to stretch your imagination if there’s a short and clear line from current state to your objective. Ending world hunger is not too bold an objective. 
  2. Start with a blank slate: Disconnect your thinking from the ‘real’ world of you and here and now. Our analytical minds start with who, what, where, when, why and how, and are rooted in the current state of these things. The imaginative mind must be free from these mental constraints, especially the inhibiting, grounding ‘why’ and ‘how’. In your imaginings, the ‘who’ can be talking crows whose language we have suddenly learned to decipher, or light creatures who communicate and move telepathically, or a collective intelligence and awareness that takes joy and feels sorrow that is not personal yet is felt personally and profoundly. The ‘when’ and ‘where’ can be any time and place, or out of time in an Eternal Now, or a place where time runs backwards or makes random walks, or a place where you (whoever ‘you’ are in your imagining) are tiny, or huge, or able to perceive with senses that you can only imagine, or a place where the night sky is full of amazing objects changing in a continuous panorama. Whatever these things are that surface when you have made a blank space and time for them, let them come. Direct them towards your objective, but don’t force them to go there if they don’t want to. Make believe
  3. Let your mind wander: Several of Frederick Barthelme’s 39 steps for great story-writing can be applied to any imaginative process. This advice includes: 
Make up a story, screw around with it, paste junk on it, needle the characters, make them say queer stuff, go bad places, insert new people at inopportune moments, do some drive-bys. Make it up, please…Don’t let it make too much sense…Doing odd stuff is good, especially like when you make characters do it in the story, like when stuff is happening to them and they just do this unexpected, even inappropriate stuff, and then somehow it makes a little sense…Don’t let too many paragraphs go by without sensory information, something that can be felt, smelt, touched, tasted…If you’re lucky the idea will keep changing as you write the story..Don’t reject interesting stuff (things for characters to say and do, things to see, places to be, etc.) because the stuff doesn’t conform to your idea. Change your idea to wrap it around the stuff…Also, when doing the above, notice the things you notice in your own “real” life-like what’s at the horizon, how the sun is in the sky, what kind of light’s going on, the way the street, ground, grass, dirt looks, your interest in bushes, what’s happening at the edges of things-buildings and signs and cars, the sounds of stuff going on around the scene-who’s that wheezing? what’s that rattle? are those leaves preparing to rustle? Etc.

I think you can see how this all applies to any process of imagining. It’s all about not forcing it, about not having it go in straight lines, or leading from anywhere or to anywhere specific. Great characters take on a life and logic of their own, and they’ll write your story for you. Likewise many of the ingredients in your imaginings will take you in important, interesting and useful directions if you just let them. You become a vehicle or channel for them, a means for their expression. You are complicit in their emergence. It’s a subconscious process, and that means you need to learn to trust your subconscious — it has a lot of accumulated wisdom that your conscious mind can’t access. It also means you need to trust your instincts. Neither your subconscious nor your intuition are linear processors like your conscious mind. If you can’t free your mind from linearity, consider using drugs (responsibly), or immerse yourself in warm water, or light some incense, or lie down and let it happen just before you sleep or just when you awake, or turn off the lights and visualize, or exhaust yourself, or go for a long walk without any destination, or lie on the ground and look up, or do something else to distract your conscious mind.
  1. Make serendipitous and joyful connections and combinations: Amazing things happen at intersections. Create intersections by throwing things together in your mind. If they don’t stick, if there’s no intersection there, let them go, and bring in something else instead. Have fun with it — pick things that interest you or which you think are important and serendipitously draw them together. This is an improvisational process — you make it up as you go along, and don’t fret about where it goes and whether it could have been ‘better’. Non sequiturs, oxymorons, the juxtaposition of incongruities is funny (it is what makes Finnegan’s Wake such a brilliant work of art and imagination).
  2. Give yourself time and space: Time limits and deadlines will prevent you from letting go and truly imagining. Great imaginings may come quickly or sneak up on you much later, and wake you up in the middle of the night. They will come when they come.

Well, that’s how I imagine anyway. It should be easy, but for most people it isn’t. Let me know if this works for you, or if you have other processes or steps that help and guide your imagining.

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2 Responses to The Process of Imagining

  1. Shiloh Boss says:

    this is great. It makes me appreciate you more and more. like I want to bake you some bread. i was thinking zuccihini with walnuts or maybe a mango carrot something or other.i like to practice imagining by layering all of these various components. Like laying upside down and telling a story. For me random movement is so conducive. Also speaking helps such as telling the story or even making sound. rambling aimlessly- yet this is not the result of the imagining it is part of the cultivation of the imagining, because something about the walking or the lying upside down with my feet in the air or rolling around on the crown of my head talking and musing and rambling and repeating the large bodied objective that helps me find and relect on those sweet and mysterious intersections.thanks so much for your inspirations, awesome articulations, and supreme to you

  2. NVMojo says:

    Great stuff here …I’ve been following this blog with Bloglines for several months. It is the one I value the most for my own growth …thanks!

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