Imagination and the Preservation of Culture

September 30, 2013

I didn’t get a chance to blog last week because I was on vacation in Puerto Rico with my husband, with only one laptop (his) between us. When I’m on vacation, I prefer to be as fully “present” as possible, so I didn’t ask for access to the laptop for much more than researching where we would stay and what we would see the next day.

Despite distancing myself from the Internet, traveling always gives me the itch to write. It makes me see the world in new ways. It takes me away from all the day-to-day demands on my time and my mind. It challenges me to dream.

In Puerto Rico, we visited two sites of particular historical significance. One was the Castillos de San Christobel and de San Felipe de Morrow, fortresses that were built to guard San Juan as early as the 1500s and used for military defense all the way up until the 1960s. The other was the the Indian Ceremonial Center at TIbes, where artifacts from ancient times were first discovered after a hurricane washed away the soil covering them in 1975.

Entering San Christobel’s tunnels

As we explored these places, I found myself grateful that humans, as a species, can agree that our past is important to preserve, examine, and continue to discover. Undoubtedly large amounts of money and labor have gone into preserving the significant places that remain, and a cynic might ask what the purpose is. We can, after all, learn about history through reading; why is it important to keep these places intact, when they might be used for businesses to turn a profit and create jobs, or to feed families?

The cliche, and obvious, answer is that by learning about our heritage and our past, we can continue to evolve as a species and make better decisions about our present and our future. But there’s something else there, too. These places continue to intrigue us because we have the ability to imagine. Because they help take our minds deeper into themselves than we might be able to go on our own. We each have only one life to live (the possibility of reincarnation aside), and yet, by reading and exploring new places and new times, we can have the opportunity, just for a few moments, to taste what another life might have been like. And this, somehow, makes our own lives more meaningful, reminds us that we are not alone as the tapestry of history continues to unfurl.

The view from atop San Felipe de Morrow.

Many of the plaques in the castles invited visitors to “imagine” what it might have been like for soldiers marching through the tunnels from one end of the castle to another, or to look out on the ocean and see an enemy ship approaching. A group of tourists (possibly drunk) stood at a lookout point on the sixth floor of San Felipe and yelled, “The British are coming!”, as if they were children immersing themselves in imagination at the playground. At the Ceremonial Center, my favorite part was listening to the guide explain, in detail, the ceremony indigenous people participated in when one of their chiefs died. Part of the ceremony involved getting the chief’s favorite spouse incredibly drunk, so she or he could, at the end of it all, be buried with the chief and go to the next world with him or her. The guide said, “They got her drunk to be merciful, so she wouldn’t be frightened when they buried her; and because it made their jobs easier, and she wouldn’t struggle. These people were primitive, but they were not stupid.”

An ancient “calendar” formation — the triangles uncovered represent the points of the sun, with 12 of them in the complete circle.

And for a few moments, standing on the edge of rock formations that had the same sort of significance to the tribes of Puerto Rico that Stonehenge held for the ancient peoples of the UK, I could live what they lived.

This ability to imagine ourselves in other lives is one of the greatest gifts of humanity. It imposes on us the importance of preserving Stonehenge, the Castillos in Old San Juan, and the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico. More importantly, in opens up our capacity for compassion, as our hearts ache over those who were killed in the Holocaust, or beat faster with fear when we imagine an enemy ship on the horizon. As writers, we probably spend more time in the realms of imagination than most people do. But visiting places from the past that have been lovingly preserved reminds us that we are not alone in our desire to understand and to create more and more. Instead, we are part of a vast network of scientists, historians, curators, librarians, travelers, and others who are dedicated to preserving and exploring what it means to be human–we are in good company, indeed.

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Imagination, Reality, and the Ever-Shifting Line Between

June 17, 2013

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I relied upon imagination throughout my life to get me through tough times. Because of this, and because, as a writer, my inner life is still very rich and active, one of my favorite themes to see addressed in books and movies is the exploration of that changeable line between fantasy and reality. Recently, I read Holly Black’s Doll Bones, which deals with this issue in a way that is especially concrete. The book explores the trauma a boy feels when his dad throws out the toys that represented his best characters in an ongoing story he was playing with two of his friends. That trauma reverberates to his friends, who also suffer the loss of those characters and all the stories that remain untold. The book really resonated with me, because it was the stories I created with my dolls when I was younger that first revealed to me the addictive power of imagination. I also had an ongoing story with my sister and a close friend, so I also appreciated Holly Black’s handling of the nuances and vulnerability of sharing a created reality with someone else. (You can read my review of the book here.)

This was the main issue I was grappling with in my own middle-grade novel, Ever This Day, although Holly Black has accomplished it more directly and more elegantly than I have. In Ever This Day, a 13-year-old girl discovers an angel in the grove behind her house, and she quickly gets sucked into a world she shares only with the angel and her two-year-old sister, her strongest link to the childhood she is moving away from.

I’ve sort of kept a running list in my mind of books and movies that follow this theme, and I have a lot of books on my “to-read” list that also seem to address it.

  •  Glint by Ann Coburn. This book follows two parallel stories, one that is happening in “real life” and one that is happening in an imaginary realm. My review is here.
  • Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. This book manages to be beautiful despite its brutality. I loved it for its writing and its deft handling of the theme, and it’s an added bonus that it’s also a fairy tale retelling. Back when I was a Teen Services Librarian, I led a program where teens used Animoto to make book trailers. I made my example trailer for this book. (And you can read my review here.)
  • Lars and the Real Girl. This is one of my top-three favorite movies. It’s a comedy, but I didn’t find it funny until subsequent watchings; the first time, I was too enthralled with its handling of the subject matter.
  • Ruby Sparks. I admit it — I was drawn to this movie because the premise is so similar to Lars and the Real Girl. And any writer will appreciate the complications that can ensue when you fall in love with your own character … and find that she’s literally “come to life.”
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? I’ve never seen this film, but the play had a lasting effect on me.
  • The Wild Hunt. This is the most disturbing of the movies listed here, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it; it’s definitely a darker “take” on what can happen when the line between reality and fantasy becomes too blurred.
  • Pete’s Dragon. One could argue that this movie doesn’t belong in this category, if one makes the case that Elliot was not imaginary. For me, that’s beside the point. I’ve found this movie to speak eloquently to the theme of needing to give up something magical and special that has helped you cope in hard times, in exchange for something more solid, real, and equally wonderful.

And of course, this list would not be complete without The Velveteen Rabbit, perhaps the true gold standard in this category: “Once you’ve become real, you cannot become unreal again.”

What books or movies have you come across that address this theme? I’d love to add them to my list!


Imagination as Escapism; Imagination as Exploration

May 20, 2013

I’ve always had an active imagination; I was the kid who could be left alone in my room for hours, totally immersed in whatever story I had concocted for my My Little Ponies. But when I went through some trauma in middle school, imagination filled a new role for me. Essentially, it allowed me to cope with a world that didn’t meet many of my needs, in which I didn’t feel like a whole person. There was something so complete and gratifying in the places I went in my imagination that I spent almost all my time there.

Life got better in high school and college, but by that time, the habit was firmly entrenched. I lived so many years with only one foot in the real world, the other always in an imaginary one. On a deep level, I was afraid to fully live my own life, because I thought that would weaken my connection to my imaginative one. I read The Picture of Dorian Gray around that time, and there’s a scene in which Dorian is turned off by his love interest, Sybil, because she no longer acts with such passion in the plays he watches. She confesses that, after she’s felt real love with him, play-acting at love is empty and meaningless. I never wanted my imagination to feel empty or meaningless, to feel any less real. So I guarded it viciously, and pushed away many experiences that might have pulled me away from it. In particular, I was reluctant about falling in love, afraid that the reality could never live up to the million ways I’d imagined and experienced it in my mind. How could I ever commit myself to just one lover, who got only me, when in my mind I got to experience it again and again from a hundred different perspectives? All, of course, while remaining perfectly safe.

My world was shattered again in 2006, and I realized then that something had to change. Living in my mind just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. It took me about a year to find a place of balance, where I could keep my feet firmly planted in my own life and still indulge the journeys of my mind. But then the big one came in 2010: I started a relationship with the man I would marry, and it was so scary and so wonderful and so exhilarating that I knew this was for real. I felt myself standing on that precipice, when you know your whole life is about to change.

During that time, what I’d feared about the tension between reality and imagination proved true–for a while. I was in love, I was obsessed, and it was hard for me to write about anything except him and what I was feeling. It was hard for me to immerse myself in writing fiction, to get lost in dreams that weren’t about us. My real life demanded more from me, and there was less for me to give my imagination; or, my imagination was co-opted by my real life and what I might make of it.

Now that I’ve been married for a little over a year, things are starting to settle. I remember that when I once expressed my fears about real life “ruining” my creative life, a friend of mine disagreed. She told me that real life could make your creative life even better by enriching your experiences. I wasn’t sure I believed her then, but I do now.

I love my real life most days, but my mind is still hungry to explore. And it wants to explore in much bigger ways than it did before. When I was younger, so much of my mind was filled with imagining things I’d never experienced–falling in love, kissing someone, having sex, seeing another country, seeing the ocean. Having experienced all those things hasn’t somehow made my imagination obsolete; it’s pushed it toward bigger questions, bigger explorations. I want to cram it full of history, theology, culture, and literature. I’ve always been curious, but feeling like I’ve got my own life figured out (for now!) has ignited that curiosity in a new way. A few nights ago, I went to see the new Star Trek movie with my husband and some of his friends. Although I was a fan of Star Trek when I was a teenager, it was because I was interested in the character relationships (and, admittedly, because so many Star Trek voices were featured on Gargoyles). This newest movie wasn’t great; it might have even veered toward downright bad. But it held my interest because I was fascinated by the idea of what it might feel like to be in space, that I was hungry for that vicarious exploration that I have neither the courage nor the means to ever explore in real life. The ocean captivates me in a similar way. So does God. These vast expanses that are so full of mystery that no amount of “real life” can ever close the case on them–at least, not my real life.

And I’ve learned that having real experiences doesn’t close of your imagination; it does feed it, just as my friend suspected. Experiences and learning and creating are addictive. They ignite the need for more experiences, more learning, more creativity, all the time.

Lately, I’ve started thinking about imaginative exploration in terms of attachment. Attachment theory shows that when an infant has a strong attachment to a caregiver, she is actually more capable of leaving that caregiver and exploring the world. What if this applies to flights of fancy as well as to meeting new people or applying for that job? Perhaps it’s because I feel so securely attached to my real life now, because I know that it’s here an it’s safe for me to come back to, that my mind can go further than it’s ever been able to go before.