Tag Archives: imagination

Imagination as virtue

“Reality can be beaten with enough imagination” Mark Twain

To change anything, we have to be able to imagine that it could be different. One of the biggest problems with this planet destroying late stage capitalism is what a good job has been done persuading us that no other ways exist. We’re sold the market as a natural, inevitable force people are powerless to resist. We’re sold consumption as the peak of human progress. We’re told there’s no way to stop and that it would be pointless to try.

One of the things imaginative experiences can give us is the simple idea that alternatives exist. If our sense of alternatives first looks like a fantasy world, or Star Trek, or even a horror scenario, it’s still an alternative. If we can imagine the derranged outpourings of an ancient, mad god (with all due reference to Lovecraft) we can also imagine that the outpourings of our irresponsible politicians might also be deranged, and not representative of our only real choice.

People who benefit from us believing in their way of doing things will try to persuade us that no options even exist. People don’t fight back against things that seem inevitable. There is, after all, wisdom in not trying to fight things that cannot be changed. Except that anything humans have made can be changed, wasn’t inevitable and isn’t the only option.

So, while it calls for imagination to make change, any kind of imaginative thing we might share contributes to that. Being able to imagine is a necessary precursor for imagining the things that will make good change possible. To begin to imagine, it helps if we are exposed to imaginative things and if our minds are encouraged to imagine things that are beyond our experiences. 

I think there’s a case to be made that art is a moral necessity – more so than ever at the moment. All art, and all art forms, simply by existing, show us that possibility exists. Alternatives exist. Without culture, without creativity, we are more easily persuaded that what we have is all there is. Arguably, the less realistic, more speculative and outlandish things are, the more they do to open us up to possibility. If we can imagine vampires in outer space, we might better be able to imagine being ok with human diversity. If we can imagine aliens with radically different ways of living, we might be able to imagine changing our own lives.

It’s not enough to beat the reality we have, when it doesn’t work for us, we have to be able to imagine something better.

Dreaming reality

Everything human-made has been dreamed up by someone. Our cultures, societies, communities, urban spaces, our farming and our treatment of the landscape is all a consequence of someone’s dreaming. Sometimes we dream together and deliberately. Sometimes we dream many different things and what we get is a messy hotchpotch that isn’t quite what anyone wanted.

Our dreaming is not a neutral process. What we dream of, we may invest in, purchase, or vote for. The person or company that can offer us the things we dream of will be especially attractive to us. Giving people their dreams is tricky for anyone who is not a fairy godmother. It is simpler to persuade people to dream of certain things so that you already have the solutions in a warehouse ready to sell to them.

However, we can also dream of changing things. We can dream of planting trees and living in a low carbon economy. We can dream of social justice – as many people have for many hundreds of years. When the dream of social justice becomes more appealing than the dream of having power over others, there will be social justice. When dreams of compassion become more widespread than dreams of greed and ownership, compassion will become normal and greed will become rare. Everything we do starts with ideas, and those ideas can seed in us, barely noticed even as they are part of what shapes humanity’s relationship with the living Earth.

We make the human aspects of our world out of our dreams. We start with ideas, and we build and change in line with them. We get caught up in the dreams of others. Nothing that humans do or make is inevitable. There were always multitudinous other options we could have taken. Unfortunately we have habits of telling our history stories in ways that help us believe there was no other way. There was always another way. There were always people dreaming differently and imagining something else – good dreams and nightmares alike.

Climate change exists because of our dreams of having lots of energy to use. We dream of travelling quickly from one place to another, quickly replacing throwaway fashion to be up to date. We dream of easy food in simple containers, we dream of brands and buy their plastic bottles. We do not dream of the sea when we throw our rubbish into watercourses. We dream of holidays in the sun, and so we embrace air travel. To change our collective behaviour we have to change our individual dreams and our ideas about what to value and aspire to.

When you get down to it, dreams are powerful, but they’re also incredibly ephemeral. Of all the things we might try to change, they may be the easiest to tackle, and some of the most effective. What we imagine has the power to change our lives. It costs nothing to imagine differently. It requires little effort. It may not even require much persuasion.

There will be more thoughts around how we do this in the next week or so.

Imagination and Meditation

I’ve recently read a Glennie Kindred book in which she talks about using the imagination to take you into the otherworlds and to have spiritual experiences. This is certainly isn’t the only instance of this kind of thinking. I assume that if you don’t use your imagination much in the normal scheme of things, then imagining talking to a spirit or travelling to the otherworlds will seem incredible, powerful, exciting. Of course it will seem like magic.

My trouble with this is that to a large extent, I live by my imagination and have done for years. I’ve been making up not just stories, but complex settings for them since childhood. Give me a bit of thinking time, and I can imagine my way into all sorts of places, consider how to empathise with whoever’s there, work out how they got there and where they might be going, and how it all works. Give me a throwaway line and I’ll wrap a story around it. I can imagine anything. I assume so could anyone else if they were using their imaginations regularly. As far as I can tell, the imagination is a bit like a muscle in that if you never use it, it gets weak and flabby.

Does my imagination take me to otherworlds that are meaningful? I can imagine my way into the faerie court, and I can go there as Tam Lin, or Thomas the Rhymer, or I can go there as a faerie, or create a person. At a pinch I could go as me, but that’s not as interesting. I can imagine a Stone Age tribe in the Severn Vale and walk between the hills and the river with them. I can see why it might be tempting to cast these imaginings as religious experiences. However, I’m also perfectly capable of imagining walking into Gotham City as Batman. Do we want to call that a religious experience, too? It might be, for the serious fanboy, but it isn’t for me.

I suppose if you’d spent all of your life sat in a chair because you had no idea it was possible to move (or it wasn’t possible for you), and then you found out about walking, and that you could do it, , those first stumbling steps would seem like (or be) a miracle. If you walk all the time, walking is something you take for granted. If you only walk between the house and the car, then a walk into the woods is a walk into an unknown, magical otherworld. If you walk over hills and through woods most weeks, you will love and value the hills and woods, but they will not seem strange in the same way. They won’t strike you as belonging to a semi-supernatural realm.

The same is true of imaginations. If you are used to meditating, visualising, daydreaming, and pathworking, then you will have some idea of what your mind is capable of. Your ability to picture walking into Mordor will not leave you feeling like you have, in some literal sense, walked into Mordor.

There are other levels. There are times, rare and precious occasions, when working deeply with the imagination does seem to open a door into something numinous. If you are used to using your imagination and aren’t being seduced by the frankly quite unhealthy idea that your thinking something makes it real, there is more room for the more wondrous. If you know what your everyday, regular imagination looks like, how glorious and wide are its wings, how truly soaring its potential, then you can appreciate that for what it is. You won’t mistake your imaginary chats with imaginary Druids for anything other than your mind talking to itself. And if for a second, you really do glimpse a white hart come out of faerie, or a tree murmurs a few words to you, then there’s a better chance you will know how to make sense of this.

The dark side

We were walking, and I mentioned to my companion that he is one of the few people I really trust. He warned me, half-jokingly, that there is a much darker side to his nature, one that isn’t usually visible. I knew this. I asked him if he had considered the possibility that I trust him because I can see that in him.

We all have threads of darkness in our psyches. We all have impulses towards all manner of things that aren’t socially acceptable, aren’t good for us, or safe, tame, or clever. What I’ve found along the way is that a lot of people are totally in denial about this. It’s natural enough to want to present to the world as something made of goodness and loveliness, but the denial of the dark side tends to result in problems. I think much of the hypocrisy we see in both religious and secular hierarchies can be blamed on this refusal to recognise the dark.

When you don’t admit to those troubling impulses, they do not magically go away. What can happen instead, is layers of denial, justification, warping your view of the world to make it possible to keep believing that you are good and right. A person intent on denying the darkness within themselves can be tremendously damaging to encounter.

On the other hand, someone like my aforementioned friend, who knows their darkness, can be a lot safer to be round. They won’t be acting out of repressed impulses. Furthermore, if a person who owns their darkness messes up, it can be talked about, because they aren’t afraid to admit their capacity for that which is a problem. That way lies solutions.

I know my darkness. I’m obsessive. I have a huge capacity for rage and anger, which can manifest in really destructive ways. For the greater part, that tends to be turned against me, because that seems safer and more appropriate than unleashing it on the people who inspire it. I’ve mostly healed from what I did to myself the last time that happened. It is ok so long as I can keep it secret and hidden, but the problem with that method, is that if someone who cares for me sees the very literal damage my rage inflicts, that too is painful for them. There are no easy answers.

I know how to cause pain. I have an absolute knack for working out exactly where a person is vulnerable and where to hit them for maximum effect. I can hold resentment for years. I also have a dark and twisted imagination, allowing me to envisage hideous things. The inside of my head is full of monsters.

All of these things, if buried and left to fester would make me an absolute nightmare of a person. If I tried to pretend I did not do them, I could not guard against them or manage them. In owning them, I am able to work with them. Obsession can be unhealthy, but it also gives me a lot of power to harness for getting things done. The same is true of the rage, which I’m finding political outlets for. The tools that make a torturer can be used other ways, the desire to cut people up might make you into a good surgeon rather than a psychopath. That I can see how to hurt people can be turned around sometimes, allowing me to also see how to help. And that dark imagination, full of fear and horrors, is useful for being an author. I write stories, and nobody in the real world dies.


All forms of creativity require us to some degree, to engage with them as a process. Writing about bardic work tends to focus on the output of the committed creator, but the creative response of an audience is of great importance too. If we develop ourselves as co-creators, we support our own creativity and the work of others. Making something is of limited good if no one interacts with it.

Some media encourage us to be passive recipients, just sitting there soaking up whatever is thrown at us, not asked to think, feel, or imagine. As an audience, I have no time for this. It’s one of the reasons I do not own a television, as far too much content there seems aimed at a passive recipient. We mistake voting for engaging, all too easily. I do not enjoy the kinds of film that are all about turning off your brain and letting it wash over you, nor do I have much time for the kind of music written to act as audio wallpaper.

Yet at the same time, my experience of creative industries is that there’s a lot of pressure to create work that can just be absorbed passively by an audience that will have forgotten you even while it experiences you. I’ve heard the same kinds of stories from too many creatives: People don’t want to be challenged, they don’t want to have to think, this is too difficult, too demanding, they won’t like it.
Some of you do.

The creativity of the audience is something we could celebrate a lot more. When you are engaged with an innately less passive medium (radio, books, theatre) or with something that aims to make you engage, you have to bring yourself. Your life, experiences, emotions and ideas get into the gaps between the words, the spaces between panels, the empty back of the set where the castle ought to be… you fill it in. Your inspiration and imagination takes on the holes in the story, works out what happened before, and what happens after. If you’ve lain awake at night imagining alternative endings for Snape, or establishing the motivation for Lady Macbeth (what was that reference to killing babies about, anyway?) If you listened to Somebody that I used to know and pictured the people, the flat, the whole relationship implied by that song… you know what I’m talking about. It’s not a high art issue, it’s the willingness to consider the social implications of Calvin and Hobbes, and to otherwise step into what you encounter and do something with it.

No two people read a book in the same way. Toni Morrison once said something to the effect that the most important bit of a book, are the things you don’t say. Gaps matter. Holes, ambiguities and uncertainties are all invitations to the co-creator to come in and add their own bits. And so you give the lead man your father’s eyes, and that holiday home you had once becomes the location. You wonder what happened to Christopher Robin when he grew up, and you clapped your hands when Peter Pan asked you to.

Without the co-creator, the art is only half made.

Dear everybody (part 2)

I hear little voices. These are not ones I made up, once upon a time they came out of the mouths of people. Or were typed. Words of dismissal and incredulity, words of damningly faint praise and scathing criticism. When I can’t sleep at night, they haunt me, like hungry ghosts. Now, if I could hold the belief that every last one of the nay-sayers was jealous/mean/foolish then I could shake it off, but that’s never worked. Sure, they had their reasons, some better than others. Not giving up has depended to being able to subdue those voices, forget them, ignore them. But of course they feed into every doubt and uncertainty I ever had.

A degree of doubt and dissatisfactions seems to be key in creativity.
Get too comfortable and you’re going to stop. It’s that sneaking belief that it could have been better that makes you try again, and again, and again, because resting on laurels, real or imagined, is never enough. It doesn’t make for an easy life, but I’ve yet to meet a creative person who feels totally satisfied by the last thing they did, and who doesn’t wince a bit over the early stuff. There’s a difference between having a desire to do better, and never being able to trust your own judgement and creativity.

The little voices say you are rubbish and bound to fail. You can’t even sing in tune you sound like a cat. You’re not pretty enough. You didn’t go to the right university, and you didn’t study the right subject. You don’t have the right friends, and you aren’t smart enough to handle the industry. Basically you’re going to make a total fool of yourself if you try, and we’re telling you this for your own good, to spare you the inevitable humiliation that will come if you keep down this stupid route.

The little voices say this is not a proper job, you’re lazy and sponging, no one will ever pay you for the worthless stuff you do/create. People like you are ten a penny, get over it. You’re not special, you’re not even good, you will fail. And we will be there, when you’re flat on your face, to say ‘I told you so’ and have a good laugh. Looser.

These are not imaginary voices. These are people, and I have a nasty suspicion that anyone who tries to be creative, picks up some of these along the way.

Last week I fell apart, for lots of reasons. I let the little voices in. I let them shout all their usual rubbish in my head just the way they announced it whenever it was first aired. Smug and self important voices. Disappointed voices. I rolled up in a little ball, ready to admit that they were all right about me and that I should never have tried.

Then that other thing happened, that stunning rush of other voices, here on the blog, on facebook, google+ twitter, by email and text, people got in touch with me. A veritable tidal wave of other voices, saying you have, and you can and you will, and some offering help, and direction.
It felt a bit like that moment in Peter Pan, where Tinkerbell is dying, and Peter asks all the children to clap their hands if they believe in fairies, and they do, and she lives. Looking around I realise there are a lot of Tinkerbells out there, spirits of hope and creativity, or inspiration and magic, that are all too easily poisoned, and very much in need of the clapping. I am humbled by what happened last week. I’ve had to sit with it quietly for some days, making sense, getting to a place of being coherent enough to talk about it.

I shall try to carry that with me. Next time the little voices in my head are offering the poison cups, I will remember, and maybe I will do a better job of holding out. I think the odds are good. The other thing I’m going to do I watch out more intently for where else that is needed, those acts of belief and trust and confidence in other human beings, because it’s not just me.
Thank you all.

Madness and Creativity

This may not bear much resemblance to what I said at Asylum, because I was winging it, but following on from Tom’s Guest blog, some more thoughts about the curious relationship between the two.

The list of identifiably mad creative genius types, is shocking. Depression and mental instability are widespread in the creative community and always have been. However, there are also far more ill people who do not produce great works of art or literature. Being mad means not working, usually, while suicide has cut short too many lives. How different would the world be if Virginia Wolf, Sylvia Plath Thomas Chatterton and others had not taken their own lives? How much more could Poe or Tennyson have done if they’d not been fighting demons? Periods of madness tend to be periods of creative inactivity.  I don’t know if having poor mental health is more likely to attract you to artistic professions, or if the irregular hours and it being okay to not work when you can’t is a part of the correlation. Perhaps being creative runs the risk of driving you mad…

Mostly we measure madness as deviation from normality. You only have to go back a few hundred years and the people we would now medicate, were considered mystics. These days if you went into the desert and heard a voice instructing you to kill your son, you’d be taken into care, you wouldn’t be founding Judaism. It creates some interesting questions about the history of religion, too. Go into a supermarket in your Druid regalia, or your steampunk outfit and if you are the only one, people will look at you like you are crazy. Go in with twenty other folks who are also dressed up, and its instantly more socially acceptable. The impression of madness can be all about the numbers. This rather suggests that if enough of us take up the alternative, the crazy fringe stuff, we could make it normal. There are interesting and amusing implications to this.

To do anything creative, you have to think of things no one has ever thought of before. An excess of thinking things no one else thinks means dislocation from consensus reality. This alone would account for the close relationship between insanity and genius. It’s a bit of a balancing act and for some of us there is a choice. Plunging into the deep waters of awen in search of the salmon of wisdom, can be a deliberate action. Stay in there too long, and you drown. You can also chose not to plunge, to control the mind so that errant thoughts are quickly discarded. We construct our own realities and we have a lot of scope to choose and manage our own thoughts.

There’s a lovely Robert Holdstock term for people who stay too long in the magical forest: Bosky. I have been there. I write about madness. I voluntarily enter into situations that alter my state of consciousness (not drugs, brain chemistry). I am not afraid to think the wilder, more dangerous thoughts, and a great deal of my writing comes out of these journeys. However, I also know how to walk that tightrope, dancing down the edges without falling into dysfunction. I know how to stay real, when to step back from the computer and clean something, cook something, reassert regular reality.

I also know from experience that mental ill health is not creative. Depression and anxiety knock the inspiration out of me, leaving me in a dead and useless head space. Creativity actually takes a lot of discipline, a loss of mental balance does not give you that, wild flailings are seldom creative, which is why merely being a bit mad will not make you a creative genius. It may be true that some of our great creative minds took substances to help them, but taking substances will not turn you into Coleridge, or Hendrix. Vision without discipline isn’t enough.

Playing with that which seems like madness can be a very good thing. It is only by thinking of that which does not exist, has not happened, is not currently possible, that we get innovation, and that’s as true for science as for fiction. I think it’s the person who makes those journeys alone who is most vulnerable. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back, have someone watch your back. Test the ideas on one you trust so you know if you’ve come back with poetry or bat shit crazy. A little more of the right kind of madness would make the world a much better place.

Angels on a pinhead, and other philosophical games

It’s good to ask questions, to ponder, imagine, daydream, reinvent. Most human achievement comes out of thinking, while acts born of stupidity and ignorance are frequently not a good thing. But does this make all questions equally valid or useful? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Asking questions will not make you into a wise old philosopher of the future, unless the questions you throw yourself into have some capacity to foster wisdom within you. Any question about some facet of your life, will have some use. Why do I do this? Could I do differently? Better? Less? More? What makes me happy? Is this working for me? You can poke around such issues at length to good effect. And subjects like politics where you have scope to contribute to a process makes sense as well. Many other potential examples spring to mind but the commonality is that seeking answers engages us with life in a meaningful way. Even when we can’t hope to find answers – what happens after death, is there a god? In the process of asking we consider the implications and explore how we want to live.

There are some questions that do not give us this. Imagine, for example, spending hours of dedicated thought creating what you imagine to be the perfect educational system. Now imagine that you do not work in education, are childless, and are not a politician. You have no intention of sharing your vision with anyone. It was an intellectual exercise. It may indeed have given your mind a workout. However, untested as it is, never offered up for criticism, never explored in practice, it sits inside your mind as ‘proof’ of an intellectual superiority that could be sadly lacking. It’s noticeable that ivory tower academics at least tend to talk to each other, and argue with each other. The issue of the angels on the pinhead was one people debated. At the very least that gives it an interesting social component.

Then there are the questions that cannot be answered well because they are loaded. “Why is my product better than anyone else’s?” “Why are you losers worshipping hedges and fields?” A question based on misunderstanding is not one that can lead directly to good answers. Asking good questions is a skill in its own right. Are you shutting down the options, or enabling genuine feedback? Is the question reinforcing an assumption? If we ask why children who drink cola do better at school we haven’t actually established that children who drink cola do better at school. It’s a crude example. In our own heads, we may be asking “Why am I such a failure?” “Why am I always wrong?” “Why does nobody love me?” without questioning the premise of the question.

There are questions that serve to divide and irritate and which cannot give us much that is productive. The vast majority of exchanges I have ever seen between atheists and theists would fall straight into this category. When the point of asking questions is not to share knowledge but to establish superiority, you’re never going to find good answers. The only good answer in that scenario is to escape from it.

Abstract thought can be interesting, and can lead to concrete consequences. However, I think it’s important to question how much time we pour into intangibles, hypothticals and imaginaries as opposed to real life. Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman? What on earth difference does that make? Yet people will debate such questions for hours. If we had no big questions needed brain time, then the intellectual exercise would be justification enough. While we have disease, hunger, crime and extinctions, Superman and Batman need to shuffle their overly muscled arses down to the back end of the queue.

What we think about matters. The inner worlds we create inform who we are and help shape our life choices. If you pour hours into working out how best to lead your imaginary army across the Roman Empire, again, that is part of who you are. If you poured just a little bit of that time into contemplating how to get on better with the people around you, how to reduce your consumption levels, or help a local charity, you’d be an entirely different sort of person. Making the hypotheticals important while the real is allowed to suffer, is not, I think, a very good life choice.

Some lines of questioning will bring you insight, soul and a richer life. Some will enable you to twiddle your brain cells. The latter may make you feel clever (you did conquer Rome, after all!) and important (your design for a new education system would surely have solved everything!) but they don’t make you real. Ask how much good you can get out of today, and let the angels on the pinheads take care of themselves.

Storytelling magic

Humans are storytellers. It’s easy to assume that story making is the exclusive preserve of authors, and that telling is something only skilled bards do, but this is not quite it. We all tell stories. We tell them about who we are and how we got here, what we did today and why it is that certain things happen to us. We all have shared stories, belonging to the tribe, or our traditions. We tell jokes and anecdotes, and ask each other ‘do you remember when we…?’ History is also story.

All kinds of things happen when we transmute life into story. There is a process of making sense that accompanies story creation. You have to kick reality into story shape, and that tends to mean finding a coherent conclusion, a way of tying up the loose ends. Story making is a method of creating meaning out of chaos. In this process, we can get a sense of control. A person who can tell it as a story is far less of a victim than a person who has no voice.

Sharing is critical to storytelling. It’s not enough to make a narrative, you have to be heard. Here too, complicated things happen. Often in life, there is no fairness and no justice, however, having your story heard, taken seriously and empathised with can bring relief over the most bitter issues. Having a witness to failures and triumphs, wonders and setbacks, we feel less isolated. Sometimes someone else turns out to know all about it. Then they offer back another story in which we might see our own experience mirrored. We are no longer alone and out of kilter with everyone. We are part of something, even if it is only a tradition of two. Once one person finds the words, it’s not usually long before other people dare to use them as well.

When we share stories, we open doors to the possibility of change. That which is held in silence, kept in the dark, or too personal to offer up, remains unchallengeable. If I share a story and someone says ‘Nimue, you are being silly, that wasn’t what it meant at all,’ I might have a chance at changing the story, my relationship with reality, and everything I do. If someone says ‘that happened to me too. We should do something about it,’ then in our story making we have just crafted the beginnings of a revolution. It may be small, but then again, it may be epic. There are many people who would do differently if only they knew of the consequences. When we tell them the stories they listen up, and make changes.

We also tell stories about the future, and where we want to be going. For a fledgling tradition like druidry, this is important, shared work. Every time we pause to imagine what druidry could be, we build towards possible futures. Every story we tell about where we have been contributes to the ones we shape about here we might be going. This is a part of how we construct all of the stories of our future, as individuals, family members, as countries, as a planet. Knowing that we are making stories and that we can direct them in very conscious ways changes everything.

Do I believe in magic? Absolutely. Do I believe in Harry-Potter-style, pyrotechnic laden magic? Not so much. I believe in the magic of change and transformation, and the awen, the flow of inspiration that makes all things possible.

What stories will you tell today? What stories will you tell about today? Make them good. You can reimagine the world as it should be. Where story goes, reality will sometimes follow.