[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?
On page 10 of Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg informs us that, whether we’re intending to explicitly address it or not, our views on “destiny” inevitably come through in our writing. I suppose on now considering this, it does seem avoiding it would be nearly impossible, as such a perspective would be firmly rooted in our worldview and how we approach setting our life goals. Whether our belief in destiny is definitive or something we’re exploring, our characters will ultimately portray that belief or exploration themselves, even if to the contrary as our little Devil’s Advocates. As a matter of fact, in one of the more recent chapters I’ve written, my protagonist does outright discuss her views on destiny with another character, so perhaps I was destined to get this writing prompt so soon thereafter, to help me revisit and develop that concept further.
As for what today’s prompt does indeed ask us to do, we have two choices:
1) Write about “destiny” for two pages; or,
2) Write a dialogue between characters from one or more of our pieces discussing their respective beliefs in destiny.
I’m opting for numero deux. However, my spin on it is going to be as such–in homage to the recent passing of JD Salinger, my character will be speaking to none other than Catcher in the Rye‘sown Holden Caulfield. I’m also going to conceal my character’s actual name for demented reasons known only to me. Let’s call her, “Margaret” for now.
Seated on parallel wooden benches in the echoing open hall of a grand urban train station, Margaret is no longer able to ignore the penetrating glare narrowly skimming her shoulder, fired from a bench directly in front of her. Normally, she would retreat into the safe cavern of her shyness around strangers or move seats altogether, but she senses something troubled in this young man’s gaze akin to her own melancholy. He doesn’t appear threatening; he is quite clean-cut and looking smart in a well-tailored overcoat. It is only the red hunting hat that he dons that signals a mild alarm that something about him might be off.
Overwhelmed in fearful curiosity as to what his attention may be directed to at her side, Margaret summons the confidence to speak.
“Are you all right?”
Perhaps the ear flaps of his hunting cap muffle the sound from reaching his notice.
“Are you okay?”
The young man’s eyes dart up with a start as he recognizes he’s being addressed.
“Sorry, I know I’m being random, but I was just wondering if there’s something near me that’s bothering you. Hopefully, it’s not me.”
“How’d you be bothering me just sitting there?” he notes, trying to affect a blank expression, though unable to conceal an innocent bewilderment.
“I don’t know.” Margaret reddens, feeling silly that she brought this all upon herself. “I guess I might remind of you someone you don’t like.” That sounds logical enough, she thinks.
Becoming conscious of his hat, Holden takes his turn to flush, and as he slides it back genteelly off his short, unexpectedly graying hair with his left hand, he extends his right over the back-rest to invite Margaret to shake it.
“Holden. Nice to meet you.”
He’s a gentleman; and soft skin. “Margaret.”
“Sorry if I creeped you out and all. It’s nothing to do with you. I’m not a madman or anything, I was only looking at the graffiti.” He gestures to a word carved in the wood a mere couple inches from her right arm. “It’s nothing to do with you.”
Margaret interprets this repetition as a polite way of telling her to butt out. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
Picking up on her embarrassment, Holden replies, “No, don’t worry, I don’t think you’re being nosy or anything. I shouldn’ta been looking like I was staring at you and all. I mean, I don’t mean to be rude.”
Seeking to get past this mutual awkwardness, Margaret rotates her head and leans forward to better read the carving. “Destino,” she reads aloud. Huh.
“Means ‘destiny,’ I guess.” When Margaret doesn’t speak, Holden nervously rambles on. “You know, I hate graffiti. I hate messing up stuff that’s supposed to look nice. Just the idea that some phony would sit there and have a goddam knife to pull out and slice into this nice varnished wood that’s here for everybody else too depresses the hell outta me.” On observing her furrowing brow: “Pardon me, ma’am. Excuse my language.”
Conscious of her expression, Margaret tries to shake it off flippantly. “Oh! No, no. Not at all. Takes a lot to offend me, trust me. I was just thinking about what you said. I totally understand.”
Encouraged, Holden continues. “It’s just that I see this stuff everywhere, and it depresses me, if you want to know the truth. I saw a goddam ‘F*** you’ written on a wall in my little sister’s school, for Chrissake. I hate that. It’s lousy to write something like that in a kid’s school.”
Margaret grins inwardly at Holden’s critical cursing about cursing, and she finds her interest piqued by this complex youth approximately half her age. It seems he might be game for waxing philosophical for a brief while, at least to kill time.
“Well, I’m not a fan of graffiti either, but you have to admit this is a nicer form of it. I mean, maybe the person wasn’t ‘phony’ at all, but seriously contemplating what that word means. Maybe they were celebrating that their destiny had just been fulfilled, or praying so.”
“Believing in destiny is phony. There isn’t any such thing, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a goddam phony bastard himself.”
“You’re quite cynical for your age! I take it you see yourself as the master of your own fate, then?”
“I don’t think I’m the master of anything. We’re all stuck falling through this phony world, laughing at jokes we don’t even think are funny and taking an exam or doing work that we’re brainwashed to believe is important and stuff, and for what? Money? Reputation? Pay a dime to dance with a pretty girl? None of it adds up to a pile of beans when all’s said and done. We work ourselves to the bone to end up dead, and then what? We can’t take it with us. No, I’m no master of anything.” Just then, Holden looks off into a realm of thought invisible to Margaret and quiets to almost a whisper. “I’d like to be. I think I could be. If I could just catch those crazy kids when they came falling. I could be the master of that. I really think I could.”
Trying her best at interpretation without being too invasive, Margaret asks, “You’d like to help those that can’t help themselves. The ones that Destiny hasn’t been kind to?”
“I know it sounds crazy, like I’m some sort of madman and maybe I am, but I can’t stop thinking about those kids.” He raises his red hat back to his head as though unconsciously and pulls it over his ears snugly. “Goddam graffiti.”
Though she has no clue what kids he’s talking about nor where they’re falling from or why, empathetic soul that she is, Margaret attempts to soothe Holden by relating the best way she can. “I feel that way, too, sometimes. That life can be random, and we just have to keeping rolling with the current with our heads above water as best we can. But overall I think that flow might still be taking us somewhere, with or without our consent. Or not. I feel for others’ disillusionment, too, and would like to think someone would be there to catch me if I fell.”
She doesn’t expect it when Holden looks her directly in the eye just then.
“Too late,” he shakes his head. “But don’t worry, because it’s too late for me too.”
Margaret is perplexed at the seeming sage quality in this kid. “How so?”
“We’ve grown up. We can’t ride the carousel anymore.”
Margaret lowers her eyes. “I don’t think we should give up on ourselves just yet. I’m not giving up on me, anyways. I think Fate has something in store for me yet.”
“So you think you can still do anything about it?”
“Yeah. Well, I’d like to think so. I mean, I dobelieve in free will. More than just tossing my hands up to the skies and saying, ‘Ah well. So be it.'”
“You’d sounded more like you believed in destiny before.” Holden is looking at her skeptically now, sizing up her capacity for phoniness.
“I do. I guess I’ve just always figured we still operate ‘freely’ within that larger structure already put in place—by God, or whatever you might or apparently might not believe in. What I’m trying to say is that I personally think we have an ultimate destiny, even if the paths we take to get there and the experiences along the way are for the most part controlled by us. There might be those ‘little events’ planted here and there for a purpose, then, like occasional guideposts or guardrails to keep us on track.”
Peering at her stoically from beneath his cap, Holden does not look convinced.
Margaret presses on with the proverbial college-try. “I remember reading somewhere, in someone’s blog, that that was their theory on deja-vu, that what we see that feels so familiar are actually signs that we’re on target…like on some level we’ve already lived out our destiny, and what we see as deja-vu is the playback, in brief clips, to show us that what we’re doing, at that exact point in time, is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing and where.”
“I don’t know what a ‘blog’ is, but that’s an interesting thought. It really is, no kidding. I get those sometimes, too, those deja-vus, but I don’t tell anybody about them or anything because those Pencey crooks’d think I was a damn sissy and knock my lights out. They really would. But still, I get them. The deja-vus, I mean. I figure they only mean that I’m crazy and all. Like my brain is on the fritz.”
“I don’t know if we’ll ever really know what they are, but I think it’s safe to say they’re not a sign of insanity. Whatever those ‘Pencey crooks’ say, it happens to everyone, even them, whoever they are.”
“They don’t matter anymore. Never did, really. You’ll probably think I’m crazy for saying this and all, but it’s my kid sister that’s got everything figured out, if you really want to know the truth.” Holden instantly appears to glow from within at the mention. “That kid kills me, she really does. You would like her. I mean, it’s not like she’s perfect or anything, but she’s really likable. Old Phoebe’s the real deal.”
Margaret smiles kindly at the sibling sentimentality. “So, do you think Phoebe would believe in anything like Destiny? Does she not need you to catch her?”
The corners of his mouth turn down a perceptible degree. “No. She doesn’t need me for anything at all. All I do is let her down, but I don’t know what I’d do without her, though, that’s for sure. That kid’s pretty much got it figured out, she really does. She’s not going to need to rely on Destiny or anything because she’ll make her own. She’ll grab the goddam reins of that carousel horse and get it to race around the other way. I really think she could do it, too. If she wanted to and all.”
“Holden, if you can believe that of anyone, you can’t be a total fatalist. Surely you can believe it of yourself, then.”
Holden eyes Margaret up and down, only just then noticing that she’s an attractive woman. He always did like them older, but this time he isn’t feeling sexy about it. He isn’t quite sure what he’s feeling, except that it’s the same sensation that dissipates through him when he is hanging out with his sister.
“Old Phoebe,” he says, pretending to ignore Margaret’s insight. “She kills me. She really does. If I could stuff it all and put it behind a pane of glass, I’d do it. I would. That’s the problem with Destiny, you know. She moves life forward, closer to being older and supposedly wiser and all that crap. No, we’re all just tumbling through space, even Old Phoebe. Some’ll get a softer landing than others, is all.”
Holden does not so much as jolt a fraction of a millimeter when the loud speaker unexpectedly blares its announcement of a train ready to depart its platform. Margaret, conversely, is thrown from the jumbling and intersecting thoughts coursing through her mind in the wake of Holden’s words, the speaker’s static-y proclamation slicing through her reflection with familiarity.
“Oh my God.” She leaps to standing. “My train. Holden, I have to go.”
Margaret knows she needs to flee with hyper-speed to make her train, yet the morose energy surrounding Holden is compelling.
Holden, young gentleman that he is, likewise rises onto his feet and removes his hat with a modest bow. “Ma’am.”
“Margaret. Meeting you just now has been sort of like–“
“Destiny. I know. Holden?”
He extends his right hand out for her to shake. She makes a motion to meet it when the loud speaker bombards them again. Distracted from thought, she operates on instinct and embraces him firmly. On reluctantly disconnecting, she sways back and, on pivoting on her heel toward the direction of her platform, she rewinds the movement only to seize the red hat out of Holden’s hand. Reshaping it with her fist, she finds solace in the body heat it has retained. She briefly brings it to her lips to offer a fond peck–closing her eyes to inhale its fibers simultaneously–before affixing it back on Holden’s head.
On resuming her pivot, she turns her head counter to the spin to ask again, “Holden?”
“Catch me. If you can.”
Holden, the warmth of his hunting hat trickling down to consume his entire being, sucks at his lower lip for a second.
“I’ll try. I really will.”
He offers Margaret a quasi-salute behind her back as he watches her meld into the masses that carry her like a current toward her next destination.
* sigh *
Rest in peace, Mr. Salinger.
Find peace in unrest, Holden. (And you, too, “Margaret”)