In browsing through the latest copy of Writer’s Chronicle magazine my thumbing stopped on an interview with famed writer and writing teacher, Ursula K. Le Guin. I usually pass over interviews because they’re normally about the struggles of writers embedded in academia or some such, and they’re usually parroting the same stuff . As in “if you’ve read one interview, you’ve read them all.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Occasionally, though, some bon mot within such an interview pops out that affects the way I see my own writing, and I read it over and over trying to get a grasp on its kaleidoscopic effect. I decided to read this interview in toto, since Ms. Le Guin has much to say about writing in general. part-way through, this rather opinionated statement stop out:
A fear of using the imagination is very deep in America.
Interesting, I thought, and quite true. How many times have I been in conversation about one of my books – or another’s – when my conversation partner says ,”Oh, I don’t read fiction.” “Oh?” I reply. A nod from the other. “And why’s that?” “I don’t know, really. I guess I’m more comfortable with what’s actually happened rather than some made-up thing.” I consider telling the other how much is gained from such speculative voyages, that the second prime objective (No, make that the prime objective) of fiction is to inform. And so we concoct a tale full of symbolism that, along with it’s superficially entertaining impact, tells us so much by extreme characterizations and storylines.
But then what is real these days? We’re constantly faced with “fake news,” as part of our political lives, and in any case memory is no longer considered an accurate reproducer of what has gone on before. “Reality TV” is considered the supplanter of sitcoms and drama on the idiot box, even though nearly everyone knows that on several levels such reality shows are contrived, managed, and in very few ways are they representative of anything real. This has created the most famous “reality star” in the person of our current president, a person who is so adept at managing his image that neither he nor his supporters seem aware of the dividing line between the real and contrived image.
The irony here, I think, is that we’ve grown cynical for perhaps extraneous reasons, and cynicism has shaped a general belief that nothing real underpins much of our existence anymore. Marriage? That’s just something we can step into with one foot dangling outside in order to make it easier to escape when we can no longer “dig it.” Technology? A postmodern tool for creating mirror images of what’s real, one we feel secure in wallowing in. Hence we e-mail instead of phoning; we text instead of talking. Death? Yes, that seems real enough, and we do fear it, indeed. Patients with terminal cancer will beg for treatments that remove vestiges of an individuals’ life quality in exchange for another three months of evading death.
So, yes, we fear our imagination, I think, precisely because it’s the avenue to something our lives touch into that’s not only real but enduring. Imagination has given us so much in our quest to be complete in our humanity, only to be eschewed now in that same endeavor. Imagine if you will a state of evolution in which we have virtually everything at our touch to manage our human functions, but a state in which we have no idea of how these things came to be and no idea that we may exchange them for the blood, sweat, and sleeplessness that would give us freedom from them.
What Ms. Le Guin is saying, in essence, is that we’ve exchanged bits of our souls for ephemerality. And that’s a very sad state of affairs.
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