Posts Tagged ‘truth’

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.


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Movie poem time again! This time the subject is what happens in those moments of consciousness transitioning between life and death, and the medium of education is Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation of Macbeth. After losing his wife and unborn child in one of the infamous Manson Family murders a few years earlier, I cannot fathom how he could have made this film. Was it the catharsis of work, or of working out a vicarious murder of a Macbeth who looked vaguely like Charles Manson?

There’s no need to get into the particulars of Polanski’s later foibles, the film is an artifact of time and place and the imagery a film, any film, provides is worthy if it sticks with you your entire life. It was a cold, late night in the spring of 1977 when I saw this movie, and I can remember this image as clearly as if I saw it last week.

if godard is right
and movies deliver the truth
then polanski clarified that death
isn’t always instantaneous

poor macbeth
climbing the stairs in vain
knowing fate had come to collect
on his misdeeds

but the lasting indignity
to losing one’s head by broadsword
was remaining conscious long enough
to be spat on and mocked

carried through the courtyard
on the end of a stake
held aloft, cheers softly fading
in celebration of death

that the brain could remain
conscious for those fleeting moments
was more horrifying
than what might come after

shakespeare would have approved
of these unspooling truths
while my parents would reel in horror
at what the movies taught me

had they known

What Jean-Luc Godard is famous for saying is “Film is truth at 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie.” And if we wanted to drop Susan Sontag in here and talk about how photos (or in this case movies) make reality real to our memory, then I have no doubt that what I saw was the truth. Yes, I know no actor was beheaded in the making of the film, but the emotional psychology that follows the action, that I know to be real. The movies made it so.

Fridays mean Poetry Friday, and out there in the Interntiverse there are people sharing all sorts of poems where, hopefully, no one is losing their head. The roundup is at Dori Reads and it looks like quite a collection.

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