The Importance of Your Imagination

Let me tell you a personal story that explains why I think it is so important that you take control of your creativity and get it in front of people.

For ten years, in addition to teaching in the University of North Carolina at Ashevile Drama Department, I taught night courses in prisons around the area — maximum security and medium security. The course I most enjoyed teaching was called “The Hero’s hero-withinJourney in Film and Literature.” In this course, I introduced the inmates to the hero’s journey structure as described by Joseph Campbell and outlined in The Writer’s Journey, and the different hero “archetypes” as developed by Carol S. Pearson in The Hero Within. We then watched popular films and read a few novels and discussed them in terms of the concepts they had learned.

But the course was more than just an arts appreciation course. I wanted them to also apply the hero’s journey structure and types to their own lives, seeing their time in prison as the time the hero spends in the wilderness where they encounter various challenges and temptations (think Jesus in the wilderness, Moses on Mt. Sinai, the Buddha sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree, and so forth).

The first time I taught the class, I decided to borrow an exercise from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that was part of the “Begin with the End in Mind” chapter. I asked them to imagine that they had lived a long and productive life, during which they had accomplished everything they had hoped to do. At the age of 80, they had died. I asked them to imagine their funeral – what would they like their eulogy to sound like when it was delivered by a loved one and by a friend.

They turned their final papers in on the last night of class, and I took them home to grade. I started reading the papers one after another, and when I was finished I put them into a pile. I was shocked. In paper after paper, not a single inmate had been able to imagine living to eighty — indeed, not a single one had imagined living to forty. The eulogies were filled with stories of frustration, of pain, of bad decisions, and of loneliness. There wasn’t a shred of success in the papers, not a ray of hope. The lives they imagined were a bleak struggle.

It was then that I realized: you can’t create a positive future for yourself unless you can imagine one first.

We, as the storytellers of the world, through our work help people to imagine alternate futures. We help them to see themselves as heroes of their own lives, as people with agency who can make a dent on the universe, as Steven Jobs was known for saying. It is desperately important that there be a wide range of stories told, stories with heroes of different skills, temperaments, personalities, races, genders, orientations. The mass media is too narrow — the stories too generic.

theatre-for-livingIn his amazing book Theatre for Living, Canadian theatre artist David Diamond describes what is at stake — and his words apply to all the arts, not just theatre:

Theatre, like all other forms of cultural expression, used to be ordinary people singing, dancing, telling stories. This is the way a living community recorded and celebrated its victories, defeats, joys, fears… Like many other things we can think of, cultural activity became commodified. It transformed from something people did naturally, ‘in community’, into a manufactured consumer product. Today a vast majority of people buy theatre, buy dance, buy paintings, buy books, buy movies; the list goes on and on. We now pay strangers to tell us stories about strangers. But when do we use the symbolic language of theatre, dance, etc., to tell our own stories about our collective selves? What is the result of a living community’s inability to use primal language to tell its own stories? Alienation, violence, self-destructive behaviour on a global level. Living communities have fallen into a stupor, hypnotized by a steady diet of manufactured culture.

When you create, when you share your vision and your imagination, you change the future. Together, we can find a way to make this happen.

 

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