Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Take back your imagination

Shelby topped up her coffee and turned up the volume on the kitchen t.v. just loud enough to hear. She was watching a building twenty miles away fall down for the tenth time in so many minutes. She couldn’t let Sam hear. He wouldn’t be able to take it. He’d been up all night with terrors again. Probably off his pills. Shelby wished he’d take the damn things, even if they did make his eyes swim. She'd have to keep him away from the news for a while. Just till things calmed down.

A noise from behind her made Shelby jump. The bedroom door down the hall had opened. She clicked the t.v. off but the sound of the same news drifted toward her from the dark hallway. Sam stepped into the kitchen in his old desert fatigues, his graying hair in need of a cut and his eyes squinting at the bright light of the early morning coming in through the windows over the sink. "Now, Sam, just calm d—" Shelby started, but his expression took her words from her; it was clearer than it'd been in ten years. "It’s alright, Mama," he said. "I can help. I need to help."


That's an example I use in creative writing class to show how to express something without the narrator or the characters saying much outright. Implicative writing allows the reader to become involved in the story and use her own imagination to fill in the blanks instead of getting spoon-fed.

Over the past seven years, I've taken creative writing seriously. My style takes time and significant effort and focus, so I'm not prolific, but what I produce, I'm proud of. I recently started teaching creative writing to beginners as well, which has taught me much more than I knew going in. There are a lot of things I can't do with words. I'm no poet, for example. I'm no playwright. I just try to be observant and communicate the things I observe as freshly as I can with common words, sometimes in the form of personal essays like this one, and other times in the form of stories. Whatever the case, I approach writing as a craft, not a pastime.

During my journey to become a stronger writer, the world of literature has been shifting. Some genres have become wildly popular while others have temporarily faded. The fate of the physical book has come into question while the e-book has flourished. Some stories have made their authors superstars while countless lesser-known writers have enjoyed the ease of self-publishing. Readers have changed too, a large percentage losing the appreciation of a slow, literary, layered story and replacing it with the fast, furious, and, when possible, on screen versions.

Recently, I watched a movie most everyone else seemed to adore. The problem was that I wasn't required to think at all. The writers spoon-fed. They could have produced something compelling with all that money and talent. But, no. They gave us everything. They told us what to think and how. And they gave it a good soundtrack to cover up the fact that we'd seen that story a hundred times before. I know junk food when I see it. And sometimes it's alright. But I declare we need more meat and potatoes!--because without enough meat and potatoes, we're slowly teaching our brains to crave junk food. I was reading an article recently about how the brain can be taught to want healthy food. It's logical to believe it can learn to want challenging, interesting, compelling information too--the kind we have to chew on instead of the kind that's made of sugar and pumped into our bodies through a tube--and it's logical to assume that enough time without real stuff to think about, and we not only get sluggish and lazy on nonsense, but we lose the one thing that keeps this world from falling in on itself: and that is empathy. Because empathy requires, above anything else, imagination.

I don't want to have to tell you what's going on with Sam. I want you to stop and imagine having night terrors. I want you to imagine being a mom with a kid with PTSD. I want you to feel the tightness in Sam's chest easing as he finds a purpose, to practically be in the same room when the front door shuts behind him and Shelby feels like she'll never see him again. But there's only so much I can do on the page if the readers' brains have all turned to mush and demand to be fed Pop-Tarts and Pepsi.

We get crap entertainment because we pay for crap entertainment, whether it be in the form of a book, a movie, a piece of music, or a painting on the wall. We must change our habits. We must get a taste for intelligent, passionate, and engaging art. We must learn to want it, learn that we need it. We must be present, aware, mindful--and, for heaven's sake, we must take back our imaginations.