Tag Archives: imagination

Is Fiction Important? (Or, a Fate Worse Than Death)

In a recent discussion of scary experiences (in which poisonous snakes, large spiders, and things that go bump in the night played a major part), I realized that one of the most horrifying moments of my life happened in a conference room in Tempe, AZ.

In jungles, deserts, and mountains all over the world, I have shared the trail with many creatures. A pair of coyotes on the Ozark Trail were beautiful and not scary at all. Rattlesnakes and a mountain lion in the Sonoran Desert were a little scarier. Neon-colored centipedes and giant woodlice fascinated my five-year-old mind in the highlands of Malaysia, along with forest sprites and machine gun-toting great apes (but that is another story). All these encounters were exciting at the time; long afterwards, they make pleasant memories. But the business meeting that day in Tempe was truly horrifying. (Describe the VP)

Back then, I was employed in a middle management position at a national corporation. Most of my colleagues were normal guys like myself. Maybe a little more normal. We were all nervous before this meeting; the corporate VP himself had called it. The VP was a man who, once a month, would fire whichever regional manager had the misfortune of generating the lowest sales numbers. This practice was supposed to motivate the rest of the regional managers to do their best in fear of losing their jobs; the real result was a corporate culture of dog-eat-dog, backstabbing struggle for survival.

The VP was tall and lean, around sixty, with graying black hair and a face deeply wrinkled and creased into a perpetual scowl, as if all the world had to offer him was disappointment and disgust. You couldn’t imagine him giving a lollipop to a child or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Tossing a lollipop down a storm drain, possibly. Extinguishing a birthday cake with a snow shovel, probably. He was the kind of boss whose idea of fun was watching the unlucky manager of the month try to walk away from his career with dignity. He would have made a good Scrooge in a production of A Christmas Carol, except that he would not have understood the joke.

I sat there like everyone else in the crowd, wondering if I would be the one fired for the edification and relief of my colleagues (and perhaps the entertainment of the VP). I watched him stalk to the front of the conference room and fix us all with his grim stare. Then it came, the moment of horror I will never forget as long as I live. The VP seemed to look straight at me as, in a voice like a glacier grinding the mountainside, he spoke the terrible words.

“I am proud to say that I have never, not once in my life, wasted my time reading a work of fiction.”

My brain recoiled from the dreadful cruelty of that sentence. Even today, twenty years later, I am struck by what C.S. Lewis would have called the banality of evil I saw in the VP.

Am I a better man than he? It is not for me to judge. But I tell you this: I love the smile on a little child’s face (whether from being given a lollipop or seeing something new and lovely). I like birthday cakes, even though they have stopped adding candles to mine, and I love reading – and writing – fiction. I cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss, who taught me the delight of words. Bradbury, Wells, and Verne taught me to dream; Lewis taught me to think. Logic, muttered the Professor; whatever do they teach children in these schools? I learned about chivalry from Howard Pyle (and from my own father, who would have been at home in Camelot or in Sherwood Forest). Grendel haunted my childhood nightmares, but Beowulf was there to wrestle him. Tolkien made me fall in love with beauty. Hemingway and Orwell showed me despair, and the courage to go down fighting, before I found them in my own life. Since then, Vinge and Tepper and Eco and Pears and Wolfe have challenged me to grow beyond myself.

If the greatest writer of all spoke true, and my life is but a stage, then fiction is the score. Without all those faithful companions, those wondrous stories, my walk would have been poorer, more lonely, and sadder by far. That is why the memory of that business meeting in Tempe bears such horror: the VP had lived his entire life without ever knowing the thrill, the joy, the agony and the ecstasy, the terror, the relief, the hopes and fears and defeats and triumphs, the good and the evil, the love and the hate, the life, the world reflected in the world that is fiction. He was hard, bitter, unimaginative, and aging. There, but for the grace of God – and the wisdom of good parents – go I. And that is the scariest thought I think I have ever had.


Where Did Writing Come From?

People have been using written symbols to communicate for several thousand years. Different experts have differing opinions about how writing began, but there are some facts  they all agree upon: someone was already painting figures of animals on cave walls at least 40,000 years ago, and there are examples from the same period in time of scratching notches in sticks and stones to keep track of numbers. By around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, people had developed systems of writing that allowed them to keep detailed records of events on clay tablets that can be read and understood today. Somewhere between the animal paintings and the clay tablets is the origin of writing, and the beginning of history (the difference between history and myth is getting things written down so that the story remains the same from one telling to another).

Nobody knows for sure how, when, or why the pictures became text. That is where the experts disagree! Since nobody knows for sure, I have my own theory, or fantasy, whatever you prefer to call it.

I imagine that the cave painters started painting the animals they hunted, for whatever reasons they had, much like people today would paint a picture of an animal seen at the zoo: an impression of the animal’s appearance drawn from memory. Then one of them painted the hunters chasing and bringing down the animal. They could bring children to the cave and tell the story while showing off the pictures – much more exciting than just hearing the tale!

Who knows how long this went on? At some point, a specially creative painter decided to draw a series of pictures describing events that had not happened yet. This is the point where art begins to become writing. Now pictures can be used, not just to tell a story of past events, but to explain a plan or describe how something should be done, or even to show a hunter’s god what the hunter is praying for.

If writing began when people started to think about things they wanted to happen, or hoped would happen, then it becomes really important: writing might not be just a way of remembering things. It might be the beginning of language itself. You could even argue that writing may be what jump-started the human imagination, which – like writing – sets us apart from all other species on the planet. Did we become human at the same time as we started writing?

“In the beginning was the Word…” – the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse 1

A Few Einstein Quotes

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

In Einstein’s day, formal education consisted mostly of rote and recital. Independent thinking was, as a rule, not encouraged. We have come a long way since then! Educational doctrine has come round to mirror exactly Einstein’s point of view; all professional educators today learn that they are – primarily – facilitators of learning, not sources of knowledge. A large base of knowledge is a good thing, but in this age of information technology, we are seldom more than the push of a button away from the facts we need to process. Anyone can access data; knowing how to interpret it is another matter. Using it to gain further knowledge is at another level completely. Those higher levels are accessed by minds engaged through curiosity. As a father of students, and teacher of my neighbors’ children, I am glad that curiosity has taken its place in the formal education of the new generations.