[I see that YouTube has removed this video for whatever reason, so please refer to this post’s comment sections for a transcript of Will Smith’s monologue in the film Six Degrees of Separation.]
It only took me about 15 years to finally view the film Six Degrees of Separation for the first time last night. What an evening of captivation that made for…you could say it quite captured my imagination. As far as what “imagination” itself is, the film (an adaptation of John Guare’s stage play of same name) is frank in its perspectives on the concept in the above scene, which gives me pause to reflect on how this can apply to one’s writing.
“The imagination has been so debased that the imagination…being imaginative, rather than being the linchpin of our existence, now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves.”
To many, “fiction” and “creative writing” may connote creating new, original worlds comprised of new, original creatures that lift us out of our reality. Admittedly, I often characterize my choice of reading fiction over nonfiction as my “escape” from my everyday. Yet, to be fair, my disbelief can only be suspended so far—at some point, I need to be able to see something recognizable within the text if I am to relate to it and learn from it and thereby stay engaged with it.
I remember making a pop-up book for a grad school assignment (yes, grad as in graduate school, not grade school!) that asked us to create a visual representation of our “reading life.” I fashioned my book such that, with every turn of the page, a different symbol would pop up (that’s no easy feat to engineer, by the way…it took ages) that depicted one particular function reading serves in my life. Among other things, I had an airplane to represent that idea of escape, a telescope for seeing beyond my immediate frame of reference, and a staff of music notes for the musicality or harmony books can provide through their themes or lyrical style. And yet…
“Why has imagination become a synonym for style? I believe the imagination is the passport that we create to help take us into the real world. I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us.”
One symbol I also distinctly recall inserting into the pages of my pop-up book was a mirror. As I explained to my peers during my presentation, reading is a way of holding a mirror in front of myself because it may either convey or conflict with my perspectives, and in that confrontation, there is reflection, be it validating my beliefs or modifying them through the acquisition of new knowledge or ways of thinking. It tells me something about myself, and I in turn form my interpretations of plot, character, etc. in terms of what I know from my own life experience and attitudes. And while I’m certainly infusing certain personal meaning into what I write, I do hope that it strikes a chord with other readers’ lives such that they derive their own meaning.
I’ve felt the sting of insecurity before over incorporating aspects that are true to my life in my stories, as though that meant I was being unoriginal—after all, if I am truly creative, shouldn’t it all stem purely out of my imagination? Consolingly, I have since reached understanding that it’s actually the moment we stop seeing ourselves in our writing that we’ve stopped being imaginative.
This brings to mind something I just read today by Josh Hanagarne (a newly published author) on his World’s Strongest Librarian blog. With regard to his new novel, The Knot, Josh says:
“I am this book. This book means everything to me. It is pure me, […] easily the most personal thing I am able to share with you.”
I think when it’s all said and done, whether we get published or not, we should all be able to feel this way about what we’ve written. So, in closing, I offer you this line from the film:
“To face ourselves – that’s the hard thing. The imagination…that’s God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.”
As writers, to what extent are our stories a means of self-examination? Where do you see yourself in your characters, your truths in their “fictitious” circumstances and dialogue? Do you find that the writing process is therapeutic in making your analysis of self “bearable”? Might it do the same for your readers?
April 3rd, 2010 at 23:18
You made many interesting points about imagination, a sense I sense has atrophied in a lot of the people I meet. Very well written points, by the way. As for the movie, every time I think of it, I feel a distant pang. The nonresolution of Will Smith’s character’s fate was hard to bear, and Stockard Channing made me feel her character’s distress so keenly that I could never watch it again, although I thought the film itself was remarkable. Movies that had a similar impact for me are: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Easy Rider” (I almost put “Five Easy Pieces” on the list; I’m beginning to see a theme here), “Bonnie and Clyde”, The Great White Hope”, “Midnight Cowboy” and “Mayerling”. That’s the price I pay for having too much imagination, but the rewards are impressive, too. Ciao!
April 4th, 2010 at 13:58
YES, that ending left me with a lingering melancholy, too…how those characters just unravel is so wrenching. I’ll need to add your list to my must-sees–classics that I’m ashamed I haven’t seen yet! I did see/read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and both movie and book (different entities unto themselves) left me gutted. Other films that haunt me are “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Vertigo”…such tortured main characters that will forever sabotage their ability to be happy. Speaking of Hitchcock, the entire time I watched “Six Degrees of Separation,” I was thinking the rhythm of their dialogue echoed “Rope”–now there’s a dark little nugget, with characters attempting to intellectualize murder. Gah, guess I’m sharing with you the darker side of my imagination 🙂 Thank you for your thoughtful comment–I’d love to chat film with you anytime!
April 5th, 2010 at 14:27
Oh, “Ripley”. Gutted is the perfect word. I didn’t come out of my cave for three days after, and I’m So sorry to think of it again. Ben Affleck is pretty, but Matt Damon can Act! “Vertigo” and “Rope” are good, too, and I know what you mean about rhythm and cadences and echoes.
Well, I’m supposed to be getting ready, so I’d better hustle, but sounds like we have a lot of cinema in common.
April 5th, 2010 at 17:55
I ended up pulling out my ol’ VHS copy of “Vertigo” last night while my mind was on it…I enjoy it more and more every time even it though it just gets more tragic with each viewing. And yeah, “Ripley” was the moment I realized Matt Damon’s talent and gave him props for taking on such an ambiguous, risky role when he was still up-and-coming. We’re cinematic kindred spirits 🙂 Will be fun to hear more from you!
April 4th, 2010 at 14:46
Reminds me of Nietzsche: “We have art in order not to perish from the truth.” Through art we can examine life and all its harsh realities from a safe distance so as not to be consumed by them.
Beautifully and intelligently written post.
April 5th, 2010 at 13:48
I’m grateful for your kind words and so happy that you shared this brilliant quotation–that captures it all concisely and effectively, doesn’t it? That’s a memorable one I’ll hold onto; thank you.
April 5th, 2010 at 16:50
“Six Degrees of Separation” is now in my Netflix instant watching queue; just added it after seeing your post. I agree that writing can be very therapeutic at times. It’s a way to sort through the ugliness and beauty of my life in fictional settings, to put the yin and yang in balance and see what I need to deal with at the moment. But the rest of the time, I just enjoy telling a good story; and I can’t help but include pieces of myself in each of my characters–both the heroes and the villains.
April 5th, 2010 at 18:04
Oh, excellent! You’ll have to give me your critique after you’ve watched. It raised many question marks in my head, so will be good to get another point of view. And you’re right that some of the time writing really is just the joyful spinning of a tale, not always trying to come to terms with something in our lives (at least not consciously), and our true experiences/traits at those times are simply fun to share and help add authenticity. That’s brilliant that you inspire your villains as well 🙂 I enjoyed your recent post on villains and what we like about them.
April 5th, 2010 at 20:28
Great clip! I haven’t seen the movie but found myself captured by the Will Smith dialogue.
I started writing again after a long twenty year break. I am most comfortable writing about my life and life stories. I tried writing fiction and it ended up being VERY similar to a situation I went through. In part it was therapeutic to write, but another part put it on the back burner as it brought up some stuff I didn’t care to think about. I didn’t finish the work (yet). That’s what I love about writing. You never know what is going to come out. 🙂 Excellent post.
April 6th, 2010 at 17:27
Thank you! You make a great point that writing something paralleling your experience might not always be the most welcome thing. The fiction that I’ve been working on has been ongoing for a while now; when I started, it was an important outlet for me because I was going through a few life transitions at once (marriage, moving overseas, changing jobs, which I don’t recommend doing within 3 months of each other)…I felt a bit displaced and heartsick, and I channeled so much of that into my character to help me work through it. It’s admittedly tough now that time has passed and I’ve overcome those emotions to now have to revisit them through this story, though I suspect things will start looking up for my heroine 😉 Bravo to you for starting to write again! Life stories are inspirational, so it’s a gift that you are sharing them.
October 6th, 2010 at 14:02
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October 6th, 2010 at 14:36
As the YouTube video is no longer available, as promised above, here’s the full transcript for Will Smith’s Catcher in the Rye monologue from Six Degrees of Separation:
“The aura about this book of Salinger’s, which perhaps should be read by everyone but young men, is this:
It mirrors like a fun house mirror and amplifies like a distorted speaker one of the great tragedies our time, the death of the imagination, because what else is paralysis?
The imagination has been so debased that imagination, being imaginative rather than being the lynch pin of our existence now stands for a synonym for something outside ourselves. Like science fiction or some new use for tangerine slices on raw pork chops. “What an imaginative summer recipe…And Star Wars, so imaginative…And Star Trek, so imaginative…And Lord of the Rings, all those dwarves, so imaginative.”
The imagination has moved out of the realm of being our link, I mean our most personal link with our inner lives. The world outside that world, this world we share. What is schizophrenia but a horrifying state where what’s in here doesn’t match up with what’s out there. Why has imagination become a synonym for style?
I believe the imagination is the passport that we create to help take us into the real world. I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us.
Jung says, “The greatest sin is to be unconscious.”
Holden says, “What scares me most is the other guy’s face. It wouldn’t be so bad if you both could be blindfolded.”
Most of the time the faces that we face are not the other guy’s but our own faces. And it is the worst kind of yellowness to be so scared of yourself that you would put blindfolds on rather than deal with yourself. To face ourselves, that’s the hard thing. The imagination, that’s God’s gift. To make the act of self-examination bearable.”
December 3rd, 2010 at 13:19
[…] that his greatest mobility and freedom—his “butterfly”—was his mind and the imagination and memories it held. He learned that in this way he could escape to anywhere in the world, dine on […]