It’s Your Imagination, Stupid
This chalk talk by Kurt Vonnegut on story arcs is making the rounds on the Internet for the main reason all great comedy works: because it’s true.
Of course, it’s not a “recent” post — a) Kurt’s dead, Jim; and b) he gave this lecture back when computer hard drives had less than half a gig of storage. But it’s great. Here he’s taking the piss out of our literary pretensions, a shtick he replayed his whole career with fairly consistent success, even as he indulged in pretensions of his own. No sin in that, however. As I like to say whenever I get the chance, you can’t create unless you can “pretend.” (Ha, see what I did there? It’s a pun.)
The brings us to the imagination itself. Missing from Vonnegut’s discussion — because otherwise the gag doesn’t work, hence it’s beauty — is the real work, the busywork, the sweat and toil of filling in the details, of building a world and putting believable characters in it and giving them something to do that is worth paying attention to and then arriving at a satisfactory conclusion, with a little Meaning thrown in for good measure. It’s actually more fun than it sounds, but it ain’t easy, there is a lot of intellectual work involved, plus a lot of worry about Is It Worthy and Am I Good Enough (tho maybe that’s just me projecting a little). It’s tempting to take short cuts, to lighten the load a little, to make the story telling easier by using narrative conventions, character types, familiar situations, and genre expectations.
That’s where you can get into trouble.
Both wings of the broad church of fiction depend on a storehouse of manufactured, processed, elements of imagination. A young girl-child is in danger. What color is her hair? (Blonde.) A man, pursued by police, runs down an alleyway and encounters…(a dead end, perhaps a fence.) A woman answers the phone. Her face turns serious. She tells the caller “Thank you,” softly. Then she gently places the receiver back on the hook. What’s her problem? (Cancer.) A middle-class black man enters a restaurant in a small town in a southern state. The first racist he encounters is…(an angry proletarian white man, perhaps already drunk.) The child who discovers the magical fantasy world is (bookish, easily upset, physically weak). No surprise that many of these top-of-mind tropes depend upon and reinforce a variety of culture stereotypes and behavioral expectations. Whiter is better, the law is not easily evaded, emotional outbursts are to be eschewed, racism is a social phenomenon perpetuated by poor whites, only the pathetic have an interest in escaping reality.
Shit! You just got bogged down in the quagmire of modern culture and all its terrible politics. You just regurgitated all the poison you have been fed since infancy. You were just trying to write a story, man! Now look what you did. Clean that up!
I like this Mamatas post (thanks, Kip!), not because he rubs our noses in our mess, but because he’s reminding us that the act of questioning our own assumptions about people, society, history, etc. cannot be done without imagining how these things could be (and often are) otherwise. As a political cartoonist, I ran into these problems a lot: to express an opinion coherently through the visual shorthands of cartoonish icons without reenforcing the terrible stereotypes handed down from rotten history is a real challenge. I don’t think I was always successful; fortunately there was always someone ready to point out when I fell short of my ideals — even more fortunately when they did it before I published anything (remember, kids, get an adult to proofread your work before handing it in.) The key is listening. That’s true of most things in life, anyway, but it gets hard when it’s coming from someone criticizing you. The reward for suppressing your instinct to tell them to fuck off is becoming a better artist — and to arrive at a higher level of politics. Mamatas, again, and his conclusion (uh, spoiler alert?):
Our first step is to see this stuff when we do it, to realize that we didn’t make this up. It was made up for us. The second step is to clear away as much of the mediagination as we can. And the third this step is to write, to really write from one’s own brain. Resist the “real”, as the real that can be articulated in a five-act dramatic structure with a likeable protagonist and a satisfying dénouement is not the real. Find your own imagination, and use it.