“The imagining attention prepares our attention for instantaneousness.”
I often think of the scene in Hook when grown up Peter Pan (played by Robin Williams) is with the lost boys, and they bring out steaming pots for what appears to be a giant feast. At the time Peter hasn’t restored his magical skills because he is struggling to imagine, pretend, and play. When the boys take the lids off the pots and the steam clears, there is no food. However, the lost boys dig in and pretend to stuff their faces with mountains of delicious food. Peter is confused as he scans the table and sees all the boys taking giant bites and blissfully chewing their imaginary meal. Starving and frustrated, Peter looks to Tinkerbell and says, “What’s the deal? Where’s the real food?” She responds, “If you can’t imagine yourself being Peter Pan, then you won’t be Peter Pan, so eat up!” Rufio, the leader of the lost boys, then begins a back and forth of insults with Peter, “Eat your heart out you crinkled, wrinkled, fat bag!” Peter rebuts, “You’re a very unmannered young man.” With every wild, off the cuff, insult Rufio hurls, the lost boys yell, “Bangarang, Rufio!” And with every one of Peter’s boring and lackluster responses, the lost boys whistle and gesture the image of a plane crashing. Eventually Peter is pushed to a point where his creativity is released, “You lewd, crude, bag of pre-chewed food dude.” The lost boys react, “Bangarang, Peter!” With his newly unlocked insult imagination, Peter goes on to win the verbal battle with Rufio. As the lost boys chant his name, he lowers into his seat. He then uses his wooden spoon to take an imaginary scoop out of the bowl in front of him, and says, “Oh Rufio, why don’t you go suck on a dead dog’s nose?” He then catapults the contents of the empty spoon at Rufio’s face. When the camera cuts to Rufio, he is struck by a colorful frosting which covers his whole face. Peter, shocked, looks at his spoon that is now covered in the colorful frosting he just hurled. The boy to his left says, “You’re doing it!” Peter responds, “Doing what?” The boy to his right adds, “Using your imagination, Peter!” He then looks across the table and the once empty pots are now filled with delicious food—turkey legs, fruit, cheese, and colorful desserts. Peter digs in as Rufio sulks away. Peter and boys end the feast with a celebratory food fight.
Imagination is a powerful tool for skill acquisition and creativity. However, because we cannot grab onto imagination in a tangible or linear way, we, like Peter, often don’t give this superpower the credence it deserves. Imagination exists in our daydreams, but to spend time in that world we need to step away from logic, reason, protocols and definitions for a little while. This goes against the pragmatic approach to practice. Like reading, we want to work in order from left to right. We want to know what to do, for how long, and the exact result to expect. For imagination to play its part, we must release this desire for control, let the words twist and turn all over the page, and allow accidents and surprises to arise.
Research shows the benefits of imagination when learning new skills. Scientists call this mental practice. Mental practice can facilitate the strengthening and creating of neural connections. One study, discussed in Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself, is of learning a sequence of notes on piano. The study was divided into two groups; the members of the first group would physically practice the sequence every day, and the members of the second would sit in front of the piano and imagine playing the notes. Before this study, none of the members had ever learned to play piano. After five days, both groups obtained the same mental accuracy for the sequence and the same physical changes in the brain. Although the group that had only imagined playing lagged behind the physical practice group in physically playing the song, they improved to the level of the physical practice group after just two hours of physical practice.
Often a dancer or athlete will discuss visualizing a performance or play. This visualization goes beyond confidence building because neuroscientists have learned that imagining and doing are not that different. Doidge writes, “Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualizing can improve performance.” Obviously, we can’t sit around visualizing all day, and not physically practice any skills. But perhaps we should dedicate more space, time, and value to the potential power of imagination within skill acquisition.
How much time do you spend daydreaming when you practice? Do you dream about connections and links that weren’t already handed to you? Do you allow your imagination to exit the dreams, as creativity, and enter into your practice? Or, do you keep them tamped down and stick to the “program” or what you’ve seen proven on Instagram? Your imagination is unique to you and your experiences, therefore the creativity, and potential innovation, associated with it are also unique to you. Unique is different. Being different is a bumpy and unmarked road. It feels safer to fall in line and do what everyone else is doing; to follow the proven creativity of others. We know when we see an artist doing something different and we know when we see a mimic. Movement is no exception. I look at myself and others, and although we are all beautiful movers, we often look similar. It’s as if we’ve all learned to play music in the exact fashion proven by innovative musicians of the past. However, I don’t want to be a cover band; I want to write and play my own songs.
Being caught in the creativity of others is not new to me. I was 20 years old when I moved to New York to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. When you begin this kind of journey, it starts in a lab. The lab is an open mic, and you need as much time in the lab as possible. This is where you experiment, research, tinker, and fail. There is no “real audience” at an open mic as the spectators are usually just other aspiring comedians. Occasionally these open mics are at comedy clubs, but most of them are in the backrooms of coffee shops and basements of bars. At one end of the room is a microphone, and the other end is a wall covered in shit.
My life in comedy started at age 20. I was young. I didn’t have a vast vocabulary, because I hadn’t read much, I wasn’t particularly witty, and my life experiences were limited. However, I was a daydreamer with a wild imaginary world. I loved making sounds, miming, and playing characters. At one point, I spent one experimental month only making sounds and gestures while performing at open mics. I didn’t speak a single word into the microphone. Open mics usually give performers around 5 minutes of stage time, so I would spend the entire 5 minutes attempting to tell stories with sounds and mime. Much of it was a bust, but there was a lot of education. I developed thicker skin and a willingness to take risks, and I learned to share some things that I didn’t know how to communicate with words. After the month was over, I returned to talking.
Not long after the experiment, my friend Ruhbin pointed out that my sounds and voices on stage were closer to how I communicated during our interactions while we walked from one open mic to another. He suggested I try to integrate the elements into my act, and gave some ideas based on what he’d observed. I will never forget the first time I headed his advice, I felt a moment of pure honest expression, and subsequently attempted to build an act around this model. For a number of months, I refined these small avant-garde bits and developed a hit-and-miss 5-10-minute act. Some people loved it and some were confused by it. But, when it hit, it hit. There were comedy clubs that I aspired to perform at, but it felt like the comedians in NYC performing in those clubs, were gritty, dark, and edgy, a far cry from my mimes and voices.
The truth is that there was a flourishing alternative comedy scene ready for me, but at 21 years old, desperate for approval from my peers, and realizing I was on a bumpy and unmarked road, I decided to switch gears and be a cookie cutter of the thing I was seeing people have success with on stage. I no longer had to feel discomfort in the confusion from other comedians observing my one-man circus act. I put the sounds and characters away and put on a leather jacket. Luckily, I’m an excellent mimic, so I had no trouble learning to get laughs with the mimicry. In the beginning it felt good because my batting average went up, but I had given up an important piece for the laughs—my honest creative expression. Overtime this took a toll on me. The deeper I got into the mimic, the harder it felt to get out. As years went by, I was afraid to start from scratch with the sounds, characters, and miming because the false persona had gotten me into clubs and performing for “real audiences” (as opposed to a room full of aspiring comedians). Although I finally had real audiences, the real comedians, and my close friends, could see through the façade. Seven years later, rather than returning to the unpaved creative road, I decided to walk away from comedy out of exhaustion from being something I wasn’t.
I’ve found myself in the same hole with my movement practice. I’ve made efforts recently to research my honest creative expression, as I don’t want to relive the same kind of exhaustion I experienced at the end of my stand-up comedy road. I’ve challenged the status quo in my own practice by embracing imagination and allowing space to fail not just physically, but also creatively. The pain of falling out of a handstand is much less than the pain felt when an attempt at honest expression falls flat. Exploring imagination is a process of trial and error. Creatively, there will be a lot of failure. Failure is so stigmatized in our culture that many people will do everything they can to avoid it. The successful artist has already tried and failed; and common wisdom tells us that if you do what they’ve done, then you don’t have to feel the pain of failure. In my stand-up career, I traded off the short-term pain of failure associated with being unique, for the long-lasting pain of regret for depriving myself of honest creative expression. I’m not interested in feeling that pain again.
We are all gifted with an incredible ability to see things in our mind. We can develop, learn, and create inside this alternate reality, and we are capable sharing pieces of these developments with the outside world. Imagination is a magical tool that can’t be held in our hand or kept in a toolbox, but has played a role in all we have created. Imagination is the starting line to creativity, and creativity leads to innovation. Despite repeated calls from the adults to “Stop daydreaming!”, it is one of our great instruments. Daydreaming is imagination’s office. Night dreaming organizes and builds connections between memories, experiences, and feelings, and daydreaming is when we toy and tinker with those connections. Our daydreams and night dreams are just as much reality as what you see when you look out the window; they’re just a different reality. The next time someone tells you to live in the “real world,” remind them of all the art, entertainment, and technology that wouldn’t exist without people having a second home in their dream world. If my words haven’t inspired you to spend more time with your daydreams, then perhaps Willy Wonka can convince you otherwise, “There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination.”