Updated: Nov 13
In Search of a Genre for Creative Spirituality
In the productive solitude of your artistic woodshed, the only language needed is the silent understanding of your thoughts, the only public a very receptive audience of one. Here, the critics may be harsh—but at least they share your taste—and the imagination has no limits or prescriptions save what it can invent.
But then there comes a day when, finished (though when are you ever really finished?), a new task begins: the long, practical slog of presenting this mad thing you've made to the world. Now, you actually have to ask yourself how other people can find, let alone read, your work. You discover yourself in the unexpected position of setting up road signs for directing traffic to your labyrinth.
At this stage, it's important to start thinking about questions of genre, that is, terms used by existing audiences and established reading communities, so people can locate and approach your work with at least a little context and some reasonable expectations. Now, the language needs to be a shared one, with all the nuance and connotative subtext that come with effective communication.
Having explored some of the label terrain now, examining what's out there and asking where my work fits within it all, I think I've found a genre that hits all of the important points: Visionary Fiction.
But first, some context.
I first learned about a genre of painting called "visionary art" through the work of Alex Grey, probably the most famous visionary artist out there. Grey's incredibly original work has become iconic for its striking beauty, impressive detail, and powerful spiritual message. It has managed to acquire broad appeal, acclaimed by a very large and diverse audience—from psychonauts to scientists, from New Age gurus to old school artists.
In his essay "What Is Visionary Art?", Grey eloquently lays out the rich significances of the movement's key word, visionary—a term that encapsulates what has been variously known from time immemorial. He writes:
The visionary realm embraces the entire spectrum of imaginal spaces; from heaven to hell, from the infinitude of forms to formless voids. The psychologist James Hillman calls it the imaginal realm. Poet William Blake called it the divine imagination. The aborigines call it the dreamtime; and Sufis call it alam al-mithal. To Plato, this was the realm of the ideal archetypes. The Tibetans call it the sambhogakaya; the dimension of inner richness. Theosophists refer to the astral, mental, and nirvanic planes of consciousness. Carl Jung knew this realm as the collective symbolic unconscious. Whatever we choose to call it, the visionary realm is the space we visit during dreams and altered or heightened states of consciousness.
The task of the visionary artist, then, is to translate and transmit this mythic, imaginal realm back into material we can perceive, providing an enduring image of the otherwise purely imaginal. Here the role of the creative artist comes into focus as crucially important for mediating the sacred to the world. "Every sacred art tradition begins with the visionary," Grey continues:
"Divine canons of proportion,” mystic syllables, and sacred writing were all realized when the early wisdom masters and artists received the original archetypes through visionary contact with the divine ground. After a sacred archetype has been given form as a work of art, it can act as a focal point of devotional energy. The artwork becomes a way for viewers to access or worship the associated transcendental domain. In sacred art, from calligraphy to icons, the work itself is a medium: a point of contact between the spiritual and material realms.
Today, thousands of visionary artists are engaging the mythic and archetypal in their work from this perspective, using art as their means of connection with and expression of deeper realities. Recognition of the genre has allowed for communities of artists and audiences to form around their common appreciation. Grey, for his part, started the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, or CoSM, as a place where those interested in visionary art could congregate and share together. Here the link between individual creativity and spiritual development are entwined like no other place I am familiar with, as monthly "Art Church" gatherings explore creative spirituality in what is now a state-recognized church, a place to worship the divine as expressed in and through and by—You.
These ideas have been the motivating ideals of my life and work for some time now, and I am so glad to see them finding engagement and enactment in such as beautiful place as CoSM. And yet, for me, full participation in such activities and communities has been limited by one chief hindrance: my medium. Though "art" is a broad word, encompassing everything from painting to film to sculpture to poetry, the visionary art genre is pretty much exclusively visual in nature. What is one to do if one's means of engaging and transmitting the imaginal realm is not through pigment but poetry? What is the place for the writer in this mode of expression? What does one call the literary counterpart to visionary art?
Exploring these questions led me to the discovery of visionary fiction. Like visionary art, the term may be relatively new even if the genre itself is as old as spirituality. Only in the past couple of decades has the genre gained wide recognition, and has been rapidly growing.
According to Amazon, some of the most popular works in the Visionary Fiction category include classics like The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. A list from the Visionary Fiction Alliance suggests others, such as Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Journeys of Socrates by Dan Millman, as well as works by Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. The genre is indeed broad, though, and ranges from familiar classics like these to popular bestsellers like The Celestine Prophecy and even Mitch Albom's Five People You Meet in Heaven. It's a broad tent.
In her seminal essay on the genre, author Jodine Turner writes:
The drama and tension of the characters’ adventures is one layer of the tale. All of the usual elements of suspense, conflict, even romance and mystery, are interwoven in the plot. The other layer, deeper and more archetypal, is that mystical inner journey of spiritual awakening. In Visionary Fiction, esoteric wisdom is embedded in story so that the reader can actually experience it, instead of merely learning about it.
When written well, visionary Fiction does not proselytize, evangelize, coerce, or feel dogmatic. Often relegated to the genre of Fantasy, Inspiration, or Spirituality, it contains elements of all three. But the story line is generally more concerned with the protagonist’s internal experiences where non-logical methods – such as visions, dreams, psychic phenomena, past life remembrances, or forays into uncharted planes of existence – are the unique catalysts for radical shifts in perception. Characters explore alternative dimensions, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. They break from our everyday conditioned reality to glimpse a more enlightened doorway into unconventional perspectives.
To me, this indeed seems like an apt way for the visionary arts to encompass narrative and the written word. The imaginal realm is also to be explored in textual form—and has been, certainly, for as long as there have been scriptures, hymns, oracles, myths, legends, and, well, visions to facilitate connection with the divine and mysterious energy at the root of things.
Of course, in a modern context these things will find expression differently. Personally, I like not only the use of the word "visionary" (with all of its connotative subtext) but also "fiction," since the word seems to most fully own the creative and imaginative elements at play. One is not writing one's oracles or prophetic revelations for all the world to bow down to and believe (i.e., preach and proselytize), but fiction, for you to enjoy and grow from. And yet, as any good fiction writer knows, just because it's fiction doesn't mean it isn't real...
While I'm glad to have found a genre and community in which to situate my work, the fit isn't exactly a perfect one. Naturally, I'd be more than glad to position my efforts in the lineage of the likes of Gibran, Martel, and Tolkien, but there remains an additional kink or layer in my personal mythology project, the Icon, that sets it formally apart (especially from more popular bestsellers like Albom's).
It is, after all, The Annotated Icon, meaning there is an additional level of remove—a self-reflexive turn, setting my visionary fiction in a frame. The term for this in literary studies is "metafiction." So the sages at Wikipedia write:
Metafiction is a form of literature that emphasizes its own constructedness in a way that continually reminds the reader to be aware that they are reading or viewing a fictional work. Metafiction is self-conscious about language, literary form, storytelling, and directly or indirectly draw attention to their status as artifacts.
It didn't take long before it clicked, and I allowed myself the portmanteau: Visionary Metafiction.
As far as I know, this is still a genre of one, but I'm okay with that. There will be, after all, a fierce individualism in some artists that resists all classifications and categories, that wants to be its own thing. I'll settle for a sub-genre.
In any event, I hope this last added layer isn't enough to negate the whole enterprise of locating my work within an established community. I've never aimed for the bestseller list, only for a home on a few souls' bookshelves. I'm interested to see what other works of visionary fiction (or even visionary metafiction for that matter) will be opening us to that imaginal realm, and all the ways they will be growing our personal and planetary consciousness in years to come.