Daydreaming with Leslie Jamison
The acclaimed essayist explores "fantasy as portal to liberation."
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
Earlier this week, I linked to Leslie Jamison’s provocative essay about daydreaming in Astra. I’ve thought about her essay so many times since then – and heard from so many readers who loved it – that I asked if she’d be open to discussing it with me.
In case you live in an octopus’s garden under the sea (goddamn that sounds pretty nice right about now), Jamison is the author of the essay collections The Empathy Exams and Make it Scream, Make It Burn, the critical memoir The Recovering, and the novel The Gin Closet, and she teaches at Columbia University. I met Jamison in 2018 and it feels like we’ve been in conversation ever since. I love the way her mind works and the way she fearlessly tackles vulnerable subjects, but most of all I love the joy and sense of humor she brings to everything she does.
Q: I’ve written a lot about the role of fantasy and imagination in making art and also in figuring out the life you want, so I loved this particular essay more than I can express.
A: Well, if you didn't like the essay then no one fucking would! In some ways it's like I wrote it for you — as we share such an interest in fantasy as a kind of portal allowing us to catch glimpses of our own deep, unspeakable, wonderful, liberating desires — and it certainly feels connected to so many conversations we've had — in hotel rooms, hotel bathrooms, at taco trucks, etc. about building lives and dreaming within/beyond/about those lives. So, let's keep talking.
Q: I appreciated that you resisted the moralistic tone that so often finds its way into any discussion of daydreaming or fantasies. In particular, I enjoyed the fact that you disagree with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips when he writes, “the right choice is the one that makes us lose interest in the alternatives.” Even the word “right choice” seems off to me here.
I’ve always felt that my husband was right for me, for example, but developing an interest in daydreaming and in alternative versions of my current life felt unrelated to that, or maybe even caused by it. I’ve often felt like: Yes, this is good. We’re secure and happy. Now what else can we imagine?
A: I'm totally fascinated by the scolding relationship that culture has to daydreaming — and even the ways I've internalized some of that scolding. Like, my own psyche *already includes* the librarian who's shushing me when my inner life gets too loud, or isn't talking about the right stuff? I wasn't interested in excluding the moralizing tone that creeps into discussions about daydreaming, but really digging into it — interrogating it. Where does it come from? What other shames and shaming forces is it connected to? Why doesn't capitalism want us to daydream, for example? Even as it relies on other sorts of daydreams (i.e. about wealth) to run.
And luckily for me, a nonfiction writer, life itself provided me with a real-life scene in which some of this shaming energy was dramatized: a woman in Rochester who insisted that she didn't daydream, and was sort of shocked (really?) that I did. But there's always an electric thrill, when I feel life happening to me in a way that's going to allow me to explore in-scene some tangle of questions that I'm already abstractly interested in. So a part of me was already like, thank you, lady in Rochester. This scene is useful to me.
Q: I was thrilled when the woman’s quiet husband admitted that he daydreamed all the time. It’s also amazing when married people don’t tell each other these things! But the negative assumptions around using your imagination are so pervasive.
A: Many psychologists have been interested in studying the negative effects of daydreaming — an Israeli psychologist named Eli Somer has actually started something called The International Consortium for Maladaptive Daydreaming Research (!) but the OG of daydreaming research, a psychologist named Jerome Singer, was really interested in how and when daydreaming could be useful. I absolutely believe it can.
I love your idea that developing an interest in alternate versions of your life might actually be *enabled* by living a great version of your life, rather than a sign that you were somehow not living the "right" version of your life. (And yes, "right" is absolutely not a useful word to use about life — I think Phillips himself disagrees with his own usage. He's always disagreeing with himself! One of the great joys of reading him! He's truly one of my favorites.) In any case, it feels true to me, almost the way that a child will throw temper tantrums *because* she feels safe with her parents, because she feels safely held by a structure and can thus start to explore its edges and boundaries. Although it also has been true for me that I've daydreamed in my life when I've been very unhappy — not necessarily from that generative, cozy, we're-safe-here-what-can-we-imagine place, but that desperate-to-get-out-of-here place.
Q: Me, too. I’ve daydreamed in both sad and happy times. But I find my happier-era daydreams tend to serve a different purpose, less of an escape than an enhancement to the lens through which I view the world. Once I got over my guilt, I started to encounter my increasingly vivid inner life as a sign that I was finally becoming open to the vast possibilities of life in general, and becoming more aware that I could cultivate connections and friendships beyond the expected, approved ones for married women, i.e. with longtime women friends and the mothers of your kids’ friends.
But I also think my focus on daydreaming and deeper, more satisfying human connections led me to reimagine some of my friendships as more important and intimate than I’d allowed them to be before. I could romanticize friendships the same way I’d always romanticized crushes or boyfriends. So I’m wondering how your relationships and your life in general have benefited from your daydreaming.
A: It's a great question: How has my life benefited from daydreaming? Plenty of ways. Certainly it's given me a way out of lives or relationships that weren't what I wanted: everything from a shitty office job to a marriage that wasn't working. It's less that the daydreaming predicted another future, and more that it gave tangible form to the possibility of an alternative. And alternatives are doomed to dwell in the abstract, to feel less real, so it's useful to have something giving them texture.
More to your point, daydreaming has also allowed me to reimagine or remake the life that I'm living — deepening friendships, bringing more beauty into my days (on all levels, on all scales), figuring out what I want from domestic partnership. Would love to hear more about what your fantasies have taught you about what you want and how you've reimagined and romanticized friendships. How does fantasy work differently for you in the context of friendship and romance?
Q: It works the same way, honestly. One thing I think about a lot is: How does this person want to be seen and experienced, that they can’t now? What does this person want me to know? What is this person dying to share with someone? And also as a writer there’s a layer of: How can I make this person see what’s delightful and twisted and unique about them? That probably arose out of answering Ask Polly letters, looking for ways to make people see how resilient and inventive they are, and what interesting and exciting works of art their personalities are, and how sublime their weaknesses are, even.
Turning someone you love into a kind of endearing, poignant, and even sweetly melancholy character feels like such a gift. Obviously you don’t always give them the rendering they want. But I love the project of romanticizing someone, not just for your own pleasure, but for theirs, too.
Which reminds me that I wrote an Ask Molly about you once! I was worrying about you and also reflecting on how resilient you are, raising a baby in the middle of a pandemic. I think I told you about it, but maybe I didn’t? I mean, ugh, it can feel kind of creepy to write about someone in such an intimate way. And look, it involves imagination and invention, so obviously that’s a little strange.
But I think daydreaming has really transformed my writing and made it more exciting and satisfying for me. I love to create a kind of world and enter it and make it vibrate and shine. My writing used to feel more like an exercise in LOOK HOW SMART I CAN BE. Now I mostly want to capture a feeling or celebrate some dimension of how it feels to connect with someone who needs you. You know, friends need each other so much, and we’re so bad at embracing that and enjoying it and believing in that energy. I love a friendship where that’s stated from the start: I see you clearly, we match in certain ways, and I want to collaborate and conspire and share ideas and bring out something exciting and magical in you.
It also seems dumb to me that strong romantic connections should be limited to falling in love. When you’re legitimately curious about someone, when you have an urge to celebrate how interesting and weird and intense they are, you want to share that energy with them, too. You want to give them the gift of your curiosity, and say TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK OF THIS. TELL ME WHAT YOU FEEL. TELL ME EVERYTHING.
A: I'm really into this idea of giving people — friends, lovers, others — the gift of themselves as characters, even a bit romanticized: the gift of how you see them. I think so often turning people into characters gets a bad rap, especially when you are doing so in a piece of writing. But also in living, as if it's a kind of reduction. And sometimes it can be. But in other ways it can truly be an act of witnessing — seeing someone in their desires, seeing the frustrations and insecurities that might feel ugly as part of a meaningful human drama. That's one of the gifts I appreciate most from friends, and one of the gifts I try to give: How can the vexations that might feel petty or demeaning or as if they don't matter, in the grand scheme of things (like feeling really bummed after getting ghosted, or wanting your partner to be on his phone less, etc.), be understood as MATTERING? As doorways into bigger questions about how to live? That context can be such a gift. Recognizing what feels ugly as part of a meaningful project of being alive. Like a friend reading a draft you're totally, utterly sick of and saying, "Hey, that moment with the iguana eating your breakfast is f-ing amazing! And I think you really capture something about how hard it is to live in an aging body." And suddenly the essay that felt stupid doesn't anymore, because your brilliant friend saw something in it. The same can feel true for your days, I think.
Maybe relationships and daydreams do related work, in different ways — get us out of our particular angles of vision on our own lives, give us a different way of seeing our own existences, what might be possible within them.
Q: People talk about daydreaming in terms of escape, as if by using the full force of your mind, you’re turning your back on your real life or betraying your loved ones. But for me, daydreaming is a way of actually having alternative lives, and also turning up the saturation on the life I have. Imagination can do both things.
I think when we define fantasies as destructive or certain to end in disaster, that can be kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But when we define them as interesting and colorful and natural and fun, when we see them as something we can own and relish at will, the whole picture changes. There’s no real reason to be at war with your own imagination, is there?
When does daydreaming start to feel corrosive to you? Do you have a way of grounding yourself when this happens?
A: It's a great question. That's so much of the central tension I'm trying to explore in the essay: How and when is daydreaming liberating and expansive, and how and when does it become corrosive? For me, daydreaming feels corrosive when it's really static — when the dreams are just endless loops that I'm playing over and over again, almost like a comfort food I'm eating without tasting, just shoveling it into my mouth, and they don't have much relationship to my everyday life, when they're so committed to being something other than what I'm living that they feel mainly like a way to confirm my own happiness. When they can't tell me anything about how I might live differently. When I feel antsy or restless or irritated by having to come back from these dreams into reality.
But I think even just asking that question “What is this dream telling me about how I might live differently?” is already a useful way of trying to turn it from an enemy into a collaborator. What feeling am I seeking — the electricity of getting to know a new person, the adrenaline rush of a beautiful thing or place — that I might find some other way than how I'm finding it in this dream?
And haha. How do I ground myself? My life is so full of things that ground me: my daughter, my students, my house and its upkeep. So I rarely feel like I have to ground myself. But I am always asking myself, is there a way my wandering thoughts are inviting me to live inside the grounding/grounded things with less sense of being shackled, and more sense of freedom?
What about you? How do you learn from your fantasies? What have you learned from your fantasies? When has your daydreaming felt corrosive, and how has that felt different from the natural and colorful and fun daydreams?
Q: I think using my imagination more, treating it as necessary sustenance, has taught me how to move toward connection instead of away from it. By imagining deeper friendships, stronger connections, alliances that aren’t just sturdy and true but that feel satisfying and meaningful and a little bit intellectually daring, I’ve learned to welcome moments of connection, to notice when I feel close to someone, and to savor that instead of getting awkward and backing away the way I used to. When you don’t back away, you invite more connection into your life, and more life into your life.
A lot of this stuff is just an outcropping of having raised kids for 15 years. I miss just hanging out and tossing ideas around. But it’s also part of a larger move I’ve made toward focusing on joy and enjoyment as much as I can. As the world swerves into darkness – and Jesus Christ, why is it so unrelenting? – I find myself more committed to making good things happen, bringing friends together, but also just directly saying to the people who interest me: WE HAVE THINGS TO DISCUSS.
There were times during the pandemic when my daydreaming felt corrosive. I would get so into fantasies and also songwriting that I started to feel removed from my life. I’d have a hard time engaging with my kids and my husband, because the world inside my head had become so big and vivid. That almost felt like a sickness, like I had too much longing when I was in my dream world and I was too restless and distracted in the real world. To me, the sickness is a side effect of treating the dream like it’s a shameful thing and also treating it like it’s a real thing. You can create real things from a daydream, but you can’t walk around with a belief that you’re going to transform your life into something that exactly matches what’s in your head. You can get inspiration there and try, of course! But you’re not god, you’re not making a movie, and you’re probably not interested in destroying your real life just for a fantasy, either. In my opinion, shame is a key factor in nursing that delusion. If you’re less ashamed and you’re creating real connections and real art from your daydreams, you get less mopey about the fact that the dream or fantasy itself ISN’T REAL.
We’re trained by our culture to convert our daydreams into something we can consume, eat, own, possess, destroy. It’s like visiting a place and feeling sad that you can’t afford any property there, or admiring a painting and feeling frustrated that you can never own it. But the sensual experience of appreciating beauty and feeling connected to places, people, artifacts actually belongs to you already. There’s no reason to experience it as a thwarted ambition or failure or sin. That said, you do have to live in the moment, feel things, banish shame, and invite sensations and imagination into your life in order to land there, in that space of savoring what you don’t necessarily own.
It can also involve resurrecting old parts of yourself, bringing them out of retirement, because you realize suddenly that they were important and vital and should never have been banished in the first place.
I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the interplay between guilt, shame, and desire. Why do we feel ashamed of wanting more, when it’s a sign that we’re fully alive and in tune with some deep part of ourselves? And how has longing and guilt played out in your life over the years?
A: Tell me about the parts of yourself that you've brought out of retirement! I mean, I have some sense of what you mean from your own writing, including the ways you write so beautifully in Foreverland about the way happiness — as something always shifting, changing, co-created and restless — can hold fantasy, exploration, play, frustration, which is to say all the threads of being alive. Including desire itself, not as something to be satisfied but as a kind of life force, animating us.
Q: I love that idea of desire as animating life force. It reminds me of something Julia May Jonas said to me in our interview: “How wonderful is it to want?”
As far as resurrecting my old self, I found myself wanting to take my creative impulses more seriously, to experiment more, to write music, and also to enjoy improvisation more. It’s not always a solemn and productive thing. Right now I make up dumb songs and do interpretive readings of stupid things a lot. We went on a garden tour and I was yelling the garden descriptions in a very angry voice and it made me laugh. My kids are getting good at just tuning me out, luckily for them. But sometimes I feel like being obnoxious is the life force that animates me the most.
It sounds trivial I’m sure, but a lot of my daydreams concern finding ways to play – as you mention – and have more fun with the small, strange moments in your day. Treating moods, even bad moods, as interesting and revelatory can be a part of that.
A: For me, part of this has been inflected by recovery -- booze was a numbing agent, a protection against certain feelings, and sobriety has meant waking up to these feelings (everything from irritation to panic to fantasy) and allowing them to be part of experience, signs of life, rather than pollutants that need to be purged.
As for the interplay between guilt, shame, daydreams, and desire, I invite everyone to read the big wordy essay I wrote on the subject. The first draft initially clocked in at like 20,000 words, and my editor very patiently helped me sculpt this version. But now I'm starting to think that maybe I should write a book! But that Bermuda Triangle of desire, shame, and daydreams: There's no better description of what the essay is trying to explore.
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