Is Imagination Reality?
A memoir is presented as fact. Madeleine L'Engle uses this assumption in A Circle of Quiet to lead us in a certain direction, then upends our understanding of what we'd just read.
Madeleine L’Engle writes in a rather free-flowing way, yet her scenes and descriptions appear as factual. Reality being what we consider factual. An actual brook exists near an actual place called Crosswicks. She did live there for 10 years. She directed the choir while not knowing if she believed in God yet living comfortably with serving in a church while holding doubts. And so on. L’Engle uses our assumptions about memoir against the reader in a way that forces us to sit up and go, “Huh?? Uh…that’s a good question!”
L’Engle begins chapter two with a particular story about a new family taking over the “old Taylor house” as a metaphor for what her 10 full-time years at Crosswicks were like. You read it as a true story that took place in reality until…
“Reality: I can only affirm that the people in my stories have as complete and free a life of their own as do my family and friends; to the extent that they become alive for the reader, the story has succeeded. For me, this says a lot about the nature of reality.”
L’Engle lead us into metaphysics without us even realizing it. Genius! You realize it once you recover from the confusion of learning that the story of the new family, the Brechsteins, you’d just read was made up.
And yet not.
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I wrote “true story,” but what is true? I meant factual when I first typed those words; but then I thought: Are only facts true? Aren’t the creatures of our imaginations also true and thus real?
L’Engle writes later about how her generation had raised their children to be materially centric. Material connotes that only facts can be considered true; only what we can sense with our five senses can be real. Reality is what our brain inputs tell us exists. Yet many of us have internal dialogues that are as real to us as “in-real-life” conversations, dialogues that arise from within us, not from any of the brain inputs of eyes, ears, skin and hairs, tongue, and nose.
(Side note: I learnt this week that not all human beings have internal dialogues! Our endless internal conversations with ourselves and with others are as foreign a concept to those with no internal dialogue as the idea of having no dialogue whatsoever is to us.)
Do you have conversations in your head that are so real that you almost remember them as having taken place in flesh-and-blood reality?
When we write, we subconsciously and consciously bring bits and pieces of what we consider reality into our characters, settings, and plots. The main character arrives in my head whole, all at once, or sometimes gradually, like a veil being slowly slowly lifted. Minor characters appear with one aspect of themself apparent; then I fill in their appearance, personality, and life, feeling my way as to whether such-and-such a character really does have brown eyes and aren’t grey ones more suitable — don’t they fit the character better rather than me imposing my preferred eye colour on them?
“I’ve noticed in many of my favourite novels that the minor characters are more minutely described, much more physical detail is given about them, than about the hero. A protagonist should be an icon for the reader.”
I refer you back to my previous post about icons.
Protagonist as Icon
The protagonist is meant to be a metaphor, an icon, whereas the minor characters are images like photographs. An icon gives us insight into a person. Since L’Engle considers the protagonist to be an icon, she is equating them to living flesh-and-blood humans. They’re real!
Don’t we also do this with our dogs and cats? Sure, they exist in the material world unlike characters in a novel; yet it wasn’t that long ago that people considered them more as objects than beings with the ability to think, feel pain and emotions, have desires and attitudes. Yet today, we can see their being, their becoming reflected in our eyes as we care for them, play with them, pass them by on the street, live with them.
So, too, we are beginning to see the same characteristics in wild animals. Mother humpback whales protect their babies from rampaging male whales and Orcas. Some Orcas take pleasure in tossing their food — seals — into the air. Tigers prefer solitude while lions enjoy the pleasures of living together. Elephants mourn their dead and honour them when they pass by their bones, as I talked about in my latest book Brain Injury, Trauma, and Grief: How to Heal When You Are Alone.
Has your understanding of other creatures’ reality changed over time as we’ve acquired knowledge into animal life?
So, too, we adopt characters from our favourite novels and movies into our own lives. They appear in our heads, grabbing our thought life away from a commute, vacuuming, tedious computer work, or during mind-horrifying prescription drug commercials on American TV.
Don’t these intrusions feel less like interruptions from reality and more like an intrinsic part of our “real” life?
Daydreaming is what adults called what I did continually growing up. I daydreamt in school, on my run home, during meals when the adults were talking, in bed waking up, going to sleep. I daydreamed to create stories that told me of myself, of what I wanted my future to be. I daydreamed about conversations with others that became so real that I had to remind myself that they hadn’t happened. Daydreaming separated me from material reality yet enhanced my life — until the day of my brain injury when daydreaming exited and my psychologist had to remind me during every visit to try.
Today, 24 years post-brain injury, fictional characters have once again begun entering my thoughts, hogging my attention. Like when emotions returned to me, it feels obsessive rather than natural like it used to be.
Reality, then, can change with injury. What was once real and normal and natural became through its prolonged absence strange and unreal.
So, too, when I write, I find that the characters don’t depend on me to be real. They tell me about themselves; they guide my plot — is it really, wholly only my plot or partly theirs and partly mine? — they agree or disagree with the settings I choose, by letting me feel intuitively that Queen Street is where they walked but not Dundas or that they lived in the west end but their doctor was on the other side of the city.
Metaphysics asks what is the nature of reality. Plato philosophized that what we see and touch are shadows, and reality exists in another plane. Philosophy of Mind asks what is mind, exploring something that we cannot see or touch yet is real.
L’Engle lets us know that she created the story of the new family from her imagination and from some facts — eg, there was a fire in the east, but it was a barn not a house — as a metaphor for village life, as a reflection of reality more real than any “real” story based on material facts. The realm of imagination, built on a structure of facts, showed us her life at Crosswicks. Like many writing teachers, she asserts a few times that a writer must show not tell. The story of the Brechsteins, the new family, in all its specific details showed us her real life better than the usual form of memoir telling. It was also immersive.
Telling of facts never immerses us in their reality.
Telling keeps us detached from the writer’s reality, but stories created by mixing imagination and facts, immerse us and bring us into another’s reality.
I took a metaphysical short course at Oxford a decade ago. I must admit it didn’t float my boat like the Philosophy of Mind course did. But the way L’Engle showed metaphysics fascinates me. How can I answer her question? I guess I do it in my novels. Novel writing, for me, is both harder and more in line with who I am. Like L’Engle, bits of me and my life appear in my characters or settings or plots, subconsciously or consciously. My thoughts, my feelings, my point of view — or the opposite — enter my novels, yet the characters dominate the tales I weave, for their stories are the true ones.