How to Fantasize Productively

“Poets are masters of us ordinary men, in knowledge of the mind, because they drink at streams which we have not yet made accessible to science.” — Sigmund Freud

In a 1908 essay, Freud observed how poets are “able to carry us… in such a way and to arouse emotions in us of which we thought ourselves perhaps not even capable.” By merely using the right combination of words poets can evoke vivid imagery and trigger memories buried in that inaccessible portion of our psyche: a mental place he called the Unconscious Mind.

This creativity is observed in children, who boldly and openly build magnificent worlds from the elements of their environment. Through play, children are able to naturally access the subconscious — but they unfortunately do not have the vocabulary to talk about it. Poets, with extensive vocabularies, know the right words; by playfully rearranging them, they provide the keys for us to unlock the doors to our inner selves. One such poet is a celebrated Portugese writer, Fernando Pessoa, who wrote letters, essays, and poems in the voices of different people. These people all had fully-fleshed histories and were as real to him as anyone else. He said that “in my imagination I line up the characters — so alive and dependable! — who occupy my inner life… I have a world of friends inside me, with their own real, individual, imperfect lives.” He also described his bitterness at how these people don’t exist outside his mind. He hoped that they existed in “a vertical time, consubstantial with the direction of my nostalgias and reveries.” His dreams — and the people that populated them — exist in reality, just not in this reality.

Poets, with extensive vocabularies, know the right words; by playfully rearranging them, they provide the keys for us to unlock the doors to our inner selves.

There are two types of fantasies: the kind that is exposed and the kind that is hidden. The child’s great desire is to be like a grown-up, so they don’t hide their fantasies from actual grown-ups. This is also the way a child learns about the world around them. Freud noted that when a child plays, “he creates a world of his own or, more truly, he rearranges the things of his world and orders it in a new way that pleases him better.” Exposed fantasies are therefore creative and productive: it allows the child to build the persona they want to become. In contrast, adult fantasies are often secret and prohibited. Freud observed that they “either are ambitious wishes, serving to exalt the person creating them, or they are erotic.” Adults who are prone to fantasizing are people who tend to be miserable. He says that “happy people never make phantasies, only unsatisfied ones.” These miserable individuals creates separate fantasies for each unfulfilled wish, and when these fantasies “become over-luxuriant and over-powerful, the necessary conditions for an outbreak of neurosis or psychosis are constituted.” Pessoa echoed this in a brief essay he called “The Art of Effective Dreaming”, where he said that if you were to fantasize vividly, you must “always think of yourself as sadder and more miserable than you are… It even serves as a kind of trick ladder to the world of dreams.”

But it isn’t all bad. Through fantasies, adults are able to simulate possible scenarios and figure out ways to face their problems. Freud notes “the tendency of modern writers to split up their ego by self-observation into many component-egos, and in this way to personify the conflicting trends in their own mental life in many heroes.” Maybe this is why good fiction is powerful: these stories show us what a person in a dire situation could do. When we find ourselves in that situation, we can ask, What would ____ do? Pessoa uses this trick of having different characters within him in order to interrogate the buried projections of his own psychology. He said that “sometimes I create in myself a philosopher, who methodically expounds philosophies while I, a young page, pay court to his daughter, whose soul I am, outside the window of her house… I’m limited, of course, by what I know. I can’t create a mathematician.” This idea is similarly explored in the movie “Inception” (2010), which is about corporate espionage done through the layers of a target’s subconscious dream space. In the film, an architect is hired to create a labyrinth within the target’s mind that feels just like the real world, populated by projections of their unconscious mind. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character mentioned that this is “one way to get at a subjects thoughts — his mind creates the people, so we can literally talk to his subconscious.” The goal of the dreamer is to eventually become all of these characters, and in a way unifying his own fragmented psyche. Pessoa said that the “highest state of dreaming is when, having created a picture with various figures whose lives we live all at the same time, we are jointly and interactively all of those souls.”

Freud promoted a healthy study of one’s own fantasies, and even suggested that it may be useful in strengthening our understanding of the world. But he also warned that eventually, fantasy might seem much better than reality — if a dreamer isn’t careful, the conflict between belief and objective truth may lead to a mental breakdown. In Filipino culture, we call it may sariling mundo (living in one’s own world), which implies that this person has become unrealistic and detached from reality.

But if a dreamer possessed by this rich inner world, there is a potential for their dream to eventually become a reality. It is also possible for that dream to define the reality of others. Regarding this, Freud said that “it seems extremely probable that myths, for example, are distorted vestiges of the wish-phantasies of whole nations — the age long dreams of young humanity.”


  1. Freud, S. (1963). “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming (1908)”. In Character and Culture: Psychoanalysis applied to anthropology, mythology, folklore, literature, and culture in general (pp. 34–43). New York: Collier Books.
  2. Pessoa, F. (2003). The Book of Disquiet (Richard Zenith, Trans.). New York: Penguin Books.
  3. Thomas, E.; Nolan, C. (Producers) & Nolan, C. (Director). (2010). Inception [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures.



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