Readers often ask me where my stories come from and in truth the imagination is mysterious to me---I never know where it begins or ends because the seeds of my stories have a “given” quality and I can’t really will them to happen. It’s almost as though there’s a pneumatic tube of the imagination and I hang out there when other writers are occupied so I get weird and cryptic assignments: It could be a title, like The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire. Or the image of an enchanted man. If I play with the assignment long enough, characters appear and they make the image or title earthbound. My characters have to adhere to the laws of gravity and deal with an ordinary world. It interests me most when one fantastic thing enters the ordinary world. Everything gets a little tilted yet life has to go on according to ordinary laws. You might say that real time and space have been invaded by one alien thing--a Midwestern vampire, an enchanted man, the presence of an angel.
It sometimes takes a long time to find the link between the cryptic image or title and characters who are grounded in the mundane world. For example, the title story of Enchantment began when I had an image of a woman on her porch getting a UPS delivery of an enchanted man. She’d ordered him from an online site and he came with instructions to mist him twice a day. I started the story many times and couldn’t figure out how to move it forward. But when her sullen teen-aged kids appeared, I realized the heart of the story was about the woman hiding the enchanted man from her family.
And the title The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire appeared with such urgency that I knew I had to write the story. All I knew about this vampire is that he lived in the Midwest and was terribly lonely. But when a judge in the small Midwestern town to bother him about getting citizenship, I knew that he had to bend to life in the heartlands.
In these stories, a girl has feet that can see, a man is indirectly introduced to an angel who has lived his life, and two circus-performers turn themselves into piece of two-ply thread to go through the eye of a needle.
Not all of my stories are triggered by surreal images. I’m fascinated by people, relationships and obsessions. Enchantment has a story about a character who wants to get a piercing (I did all my research online!), a woman who visits an old boyfriend, a cat that acts as a comforter, and two people who think they are soul mates. It also has two semi-autobiographical novellas with roots in my own life. These were hard stories to write because I had to invent and surprise myself to discover a universal element. (Once more the use of the imagination!) After I finished, I felt as if I’d dived into a shipwreck and come up having lived a slightly different life.
Whether I write about what’s apparently “real,” or something more surrealistic, I have to feel captivated and enchanted myself or I don’t feel motivated to write the story. As a kid I had a viewer that held discs so you could look inside and see three-dimensional scenes. I remember looking at Little Red Riding Hood, poised in the dark forest with her basket. I could feel the quiet of the woods and she seemed real, alive in another realm. I wanted to find a way to reach her. So when I talk about feeling enchanted, I’m talking about a feeling that started when I was very young. Perhaps all resonance to fantasy and what seems impossible happens when we’re young. If this is the case, part of fantasy fiction isn’t an escape at all, but a return to a time when we dreamt and imagined more freely.
Boundaries, Imagination and Beliefs
Now and them people who read my wonder where my boundaries are. Do I really believe in vampires and angels and girls with feet that can see? Do I believe that there are enchanted men or that a woman can see Poland in back of her car?
The answer: Of course not.
Like everybody else, I live in a world of shifting boundaries. When I have to cook a meal or get a child ready for school or go to a party, I lunge for all the things that have nouns: Salt, sugar, socks, backpack, earrings, lipstick, heels. Nouns and what they stand for feel solid and reassuring. I also love documentaries--maybe partly made up but seeming like a perfect marriage of facts and images.
But there’s a part of life that has a shifting, luminous edge for me. So I live between reassuring fixtures and what’s barely intuited, hard to put into words. That may be one reason why I’m receptive to what seems “given” by the imagination. Also putting something fantastic in a story but grounding it in the ordinary world is one way to explore these blurred lines. Readers I’ve met have told me this kind of fiction encourages them to imagine as well as see dissonance and absurdity.
Of course all fiction encourages readers to imagine and has blurred lines. Readers want to follow the characters home and see the difference between the stories they tell on the street and the way they live privately. My work ends up having to do this, too.
One last thought about the imagination: It seems to know more than we do. When I wrote Heidegger’s Glasses I made things up about WWII in the first draft because I do research later. When I got around to research a lot of what I made up really happened. Some coincidences must have been because I knew the facts subliminally. But there were so many, it seemed as though the creative imagination has phalanges and can time travel. I think all of this can do it! Just start with the phrase “Once upon a time….” and you will let into the fantastic world of the imagination.
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