The Storyteller's Phantasy: Finding, Fostering, and Fueling the Creative Impulse
Some of my earliest positive memories from childhood center around my making up stories and expressing those stories through art and play. Whether painting stories from my five-year old imagination or acting them out in an elaborate plot between Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite, my activities revolved around creating scenes that felt vibrant and dreamy and otherworldly.
Looking back, I can see my imagination was the place I both escaped to and thrived within. It fueled me, and in the darkest moments of my life, it's helped me hold on. I think even as young as grade school, I had a curiosity about where it all came from, a desire to understand why most people looked at a ball and saw a ball, but I looked at it and saw a dragon's egg––the last of its kind, hidden in this world by some rogue knight bent on preserving the species. I wanted to know why I needed to create stories, and I wanted to understand how it came so easy to me. Now, some decades later, I am still puzzled by the origin of the creative impulse. What compels us to make art? And why are some of us more compelled than others? Why does the kind of art we make look or read the way it does? How is it that the creative impulse is as unique as a fingerprint, varying from one artist to the next? These are just some of the questions I want to explore in my newsletter, The Storyteller's Phantasy.
My use of the word, "phantasy," comes from Freud. He was also curious as to the origin of creativity. Sigmund Freud believed that our mental activities are set up, designed almost, towards inventing worlds in which our innermost desires are fulfilled. By that measure, we all have an impulse to create, but the artist takes that impulse one step further. For the artist, the impulse to create stems from the unmet wish fulfillment of childhood (I can almost hear Aristotle saying that we are all only ever seven-years old). Separating the concepts of play and reality (an arguable claim in and of itself. I'll entertain that one at a later date), Freud observed that when we grow up, we cease to play, and so we give up the pleasure we gained from playing. But, he argues, the human mind never gives up anything. It just separates one thing from another.
What appears to be a renunciation of reality is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate. In the same way, a growing child, when he stops playing, gives up nothing but the link with real objects; instead of playing, he now phantasies. He builds castles in the air and creates what are called day-dreams. (Freud, "Creative Writing and Day-Dreaming," 1908).
So the child plays and the adult phantasies, and for Freud, a significant difference between the two is that, unlike the child, the adult is ashamed of their phantasies––ashamed of them being childish and unacceptable. In the case of my example above, it's one thing for a ten-year to see a dragon's egg when she looks at a ball; it's another for forty-year old woman. There seems to be something pathological in the concept of phantasy; something that evokes shame in us on an unconscious level. From here, Freud separates the day-dreamers from the creatives, the difference being that the day-dreamers conceal their phantasies while the creatives embrace them and shove them out into the world. They make art out of them. Art, then, is merely repressed wish fulfillment. And by looking at the kind of art the creative produces, we can speculate on what some of those unmet wishes might be.
Wow, that's a lot to digest. And I'm less interested in having a tête-à-tête with Freud over his theorizing of phantasy than I am in mobilizing the term to stand in for an excavation of my own creative impulse...and your's. Cause here's the thing, Freud says that the greatest artists are, essentially, the ones with the most challenging childhoods, in part because their imaginations are so developed (as a survival mechanism) and, in part, because their unmet wish fulfillment is so vast. I had a fucked up childhood and a super-powered imagination. Right now, I can't refute his theory from evidence of my own past, and I'm not invested in doing so. I just want to stay curious.
I've titled my newsletter, The Storyteller's Phantasy, because its content is about how we create and why we create and what fuels our creation and how we can enhance and accessorize all of the above to make art. So whether you're a theory-head or have never read theory a day in your life, The Storyteller's Phantasy has something to offer you. From more talk like this post to concrete tips and tricks for working with your creative muse, including astrological timing and celestial events; journal prompts for reflection, analysis, and motivation; and study and support for creating art more broadly. The newsletter comes out every Friday––three abbreviated letters chock-full of straightforward and actionable guidance for developing and enhancing your relationship with your own creativity, and one longer, more philosophical piece on some concept relating to the creative impulse. I think it's a fun, free, multidimensional resource that provides a lot of value, and I look forward to engaging with you through it.