Fiction, General Writing

Good Intentions vs. Imagination

“Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that.”
-Philip Pullman

Some years ago, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival would feature one country each — preferably one undergoing social strife. My wife and I used to refer to this habit as the revolution of the month. Reading the frequent discussions online about diversity in writing, I am reminded of those times, and my mixed reaction to them.

You see, the problem wasn’t that I disagreed with the sentiments of each revolution of the month. I was a supporter of the causes, and even donated to them. However, it was a music festival, so I thought it only fitting that musicianship be at least as important as a band’s political opinions. For me, choruses like “US Out of El Salvador” lacked a certain artistry, no matter how loudly they were shouted, or how many of the crowd joined in. The bands meant well, but they were so caught up in their causes that they had forgot that they were supposed to be musicians as well as activists.

Reading recent discussions about diversity in fantasy, I have much the same ambivalence. Posters frequently discuss representation in their stories, and what stories they have the right to discuss. They talk about how to depict people of color (POC) and the LGBTQ+ community. All these topics are major concerns of mine, and I cannot fault the earnestness and sincerity of the posters. Yet, aside from the occasional reminder not to make a checklist of representation among your characters, I rarely see much discussion of technique.

Often, it sounds as though diversity is the aim, not storytelling. When samples of writing are posted, often they are wooden and unconvincing. Some posters are so focused on diversity that they fail to see the unintentional humor of developing stories concerned with the socially aware name for demons. Many more agonize so much about doing representation properly that they nobble themselves and never write out of a fear of doing something wrong.

Part of this lopsided focus is a matter of age. With rare exceptions, few writers in their twenties have developed their social awareness far more than their writing skills. So, for many, it is unsurprising that they dwell on what they are most familiar with.

However, the problem is not just one of age. At least once, I made the same mistake without the excuse of inexperience. In my current work, I wanted to make the ghost of my main character an example of toxic masculinity, and give him his comeuppance. I thought of several creepy things for him to say –some of which, much to my surprise, were later said by Donald Trump, which suggested uncomfortably that I had understanding of such a character. I thought of even creepier ones for the ghost to do. But do you think I could make that ghost interesting? Nor in the least. He refused to become a character. He remained a puppet, with his strings clearly visible, through several drafts. I could hardly write him, because I was bored with the contrivance.

In my desperation I remembered the advice that Carl Gustav Jung was supposed to have given to his students of psychoanalysis. He told them that the first thing they should do to prepare for their careers was to learn everything they could about symbols and metaphors. The second thing, he added, was to forget everything they had learned.

Jung did not mean that his students should totally ignore their study of symbols. Rather, he meant that they should learn it so well that they no longer had to think consciously about their knowledge. They had to let their knowledge become part of their unconscious, freeing their conscious minds for interaction with their patients.

The same advice, I realized, could help me with my writing. I tried and tried until I could hear the ghostly father speak and imagine how he would move. Then, I carefully submerged my knowledge that the ghost was a satire of the ultra-macho. Even more importantly, I did not let myself think how clever and woke I was in making the portrayal. Instead, in the scenes where he appeared, I focused on my main character’s reactions and the drama of the encounter. The scenes were still a struggle, but I inched forward, and completed the scenes at last. In the end, the ghost was stronger, I believe, because the character was not simply a piece of heavy-handed didacticism.

From this experience, I learned something important: My well-meaning political opinions could only take my writing so far. To write even halfway decently, I had to think about storytelling and suspense first, and my political outlook second. Otherwise, I was writing propaganda, not fiction, and wasting my time, as well as that of any future readers. I don’t know why that surprised me — after all, which would most people prefer to read, Ayn Rand who never forgets her purpose for a moment, or George Orwell, who tied his political purposes in Nineteen Eighty-Four to the life of an average man?

Social awareness, I discovered, might be desirable, but it was not nearly enough. To work, it needed to take second place to storytelling. Once the social awareness is fixed in my mind, I need to switch my focus to storytelling if either is to succeed.

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