I always thought visualization was a good idea.
We’ve all read books that ‘transported’ you somewhere. It’s a cliche, even: it put you behind someone else’s eyes, endowed you with their experiences. In imagination, you are there.
Let’s unpack that idea, then.
Say you read a book. As you read, you’re visualizing all of it: the buildings, the rooms, the people, their interactions. For me it takes place, mentally, in a kind of soft-focus space, almost like episodic dreaming.
It’s interesting and fun to put yourself in that place. Many of the pleasures of literature are simply this, making up those spaces and inhabiting them. That’s the nature of mind, unbound by space and time.
In a conventional narrative, though, your visualizing is dependent on what the book tells you. If the main character falls, you imagine a man tripping. If he buys a hot dog, you imagine the vendor and the man. Despite having unlimited freedom, it tends to be very representational, bound to modern understandings of The Way Things Are. And so on. If it’s not in the script, you don’t imagine it.
Why not be more pro-active about this?
Instead of requiring the immense overhead of a main character, a plot, a whole world, etc., jump straight to the best parts. Cut out the middleman. In structured writing, outline a way to mentally construct it. Then, try to visualize it, repeatedly. See how close you can come to creating to, to making every detail real, and tripping hard into it.
I did an exercise like this once, as a kid. I had a cheap omnibus book of creative exercises for kids, blue, with long sideways pages. Most of them were throwaway, but there was this one towards the end of the book. Imagine yourself as a tree.
I had no special interest in trees, besides climbing them. The details, though, were dearly thought out: the root structure stretching down into damp soil, the dappling of the sunlight on the leaves. It had a developed structure, starting from the top and corkscrewing down to the cellular level. As a carefully crafted and unique imaginative exercise, I could get into it.
Now here’s the thing. Visualizations like this don’t really fit nicely into our accepted media consumption models. Want to watch 6 hours of pretending your in outer space, with all kinds of reality-defying conventions piled sky-high on top of each other? No problem. Want to spend 20 hours reading a fantasy series that just spins tale after tale in an endless round, with no end in sight? Go ahead. But want to pull off a concentrated exercise without narrative structure, that takes 10 minutes?
But I followed the instructions. Laid back on the bed, and paced through it. I tried to send sensation into every part of my body, to see what it would feel like to be a tree, if a tree was an anthropomorphic tree-shaped being like me, but somehow different.
This story doesn’t have a remarkable ending. Except for this, notable in itself: I remembered it. Decades ago, 15 minutes: my mind hung on the memory.
The exercise was nourishing. Like my mind had been exercised and fed, and shown something new. This, in a new way, too – by causing me to fashion it in my head, all of it, one piece at a time, and savor it. No rushing through to the next page, or cramming the next chapter to book-notch my bedpost. Just this one exercise, conceptually fleshed out, eyes half-closed, to the nerve endings.
Think back on all the time I’ve wasted, in my life. I must have watched 1000 hours (at least) of Knight Rider, and Dukes of Hazard, and GI Joe, and so on. A bunch of other junk that disappeared in my psyche without a trace. But this? It stayed. Coincidentally enough, I took an interest in plants as an adult, and studied them at school; and this little 10-minute exercise I did under age 10 is fresher, for me, than entire semesters.
It says something, when a short exercise like that can stick with you for decades.
It says that the imagination goes farther and deeper when you deliberately work with it, and has emotional depths you might not get if you’re depending on something external to stimulate it. It has possibilities you can’t really fathom until you engage it, fully and with the body leaning in behind it.
I can’t even begin to count how many ‘stronger’ events than that have happened to me, but I remember this one – and here I am, writing about it.