Five tips from The Bard on the Powers and Pitfalls of Imagination

 

Image by Mateusz Stachowski via stock.xchng
Image by Mateusz Stachowski via stock.xchng

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

~ William Shakespeare, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
***** 

After a recent frenzy of ideas that spilled out in a series of excited conversations and emails in one busily fruitful afternoon, my manager asked me with gentle amusement, “Kelly, does the disk ever stop spinning?”  At first I had no idea what he was talking about. Disk? What disk?

Oh. Right. Embarrassed chuckle. Me… or rather, my mind. No, sir, the disk never stops. Not ever.

I admit it: I am an idea hamster.  Even more problematic, I am a poet, a lover of words, and at times quite mad.

I find this passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream particularly useful in validating these aspects of my personality, while also providing some useful lessons from lovers, madmen, and poets about the power and pitfalls of Imagination. With lovers and madmen, according to  the words Shakespeare puts in Theseus’ mouth, there is no rationality brought to bear on the powers of the imagination. The seething brain has boiled over and has become of no practical use. In fact, in the case of the frantic lover, imagination without comprehension brings danger and destruction to entire nations.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

Although lunatics, lovers, and poets are “all compact” when it comes to the question of imagination, Theseus acknowledges a slight departure where poets are concerned. While still in a “fine frenzy,” the poet is given the remainder of this passage as credit to the positive workings of the imagination.

Here are five tips on creativity extracted from Shakespeare via Theseus:

1. Actively notice everything. Constantly on alert, the poet not only watches but seeks out the connections between earth and heaven, finite and infinite, known and unknown.

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

This “glance” is neither passive nor whimsical. Those whose work requires the constant creation of something from seemingly nothing are disciplined about being ever watchful. They notice everything. They read voraciously. They look and look and look until their eyeballs burn and – at last – they see the pattern of the knowable unknown.

2. Write it down.  And what they see, the poets record.

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes… 

Poets know that in the business of bodying forth, imagination must be captured.  You cannot rely on memory to give shape to airy nothing.  If you are serious about this creativity business, keep many means of jotting down close to hand. The act of pushing the pen (or keyboard) is the only reliable one I know of that can begin to give shape to unknown forms. It is not a mystery – it is simply the hard work of a frenzied brain.

3. Be specific.  A general concept can be interesting, but put it on a map with a street name and a cast of named characters, and your audience will be spellbound.

…and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Isn’t “Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt” infinitely more delicious than “his lover’s face in any random location?” Imagination requires specificity of the recorder.

4. Rejoice. The creative act is nothing short of incarnational joy. It is where apprehension and comprehension meet.

Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Unlike lunatics and lovers, poets apprehend in order to comprehend, which leads to a deeper and wider experience of knowing. Entering into joy through the imagination leads to a comprehension of a joy-Giver, and ultimately, to a sense of gratitude and renewed purpose.

5. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Lest those of us in the business of “making stuff up” for a living get too high an opinion of ourselves, Theseus ends his complimentary lines about poets with this reminder of the pitfalls of imagination:

Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Many moons ago, in the middle of the dot-com boom, I had the privilege of working on the management team of a hi-tech start up. I was shy then, but ambitious, and the hamster brain was already on the treadmill. My boss sensed that I had much to say in creative meetings, but I was holding back. He told me something I have never forgotten: “Put all your ideas on the table. Nine out of ten of them will be terrible, and the rest of us will tell you. But that one gem is the one thing we need more than anything.”

Nine times out of ten, I will see a bear where there is a bush. Nine times out of ten, my colleagues and I will laugh at my hamster brain gone wild. But if I don’t say it to some cooler-headed colleagues, I will never know.

And neither will they.

Reference
Immortal Poems of the English Language, Edited by Oscar Williams (Pocket Books, 1952)

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