Tue
Feb 9 2010 5:22pm

Imagine Not

I would like to thank Pablo and the team at Tor.com for so kindly inviting me on as a guest author these last four weeks. I’m grateful for your help, and it has been a pleasure joining the game.

When I went to the Tim Burton exhibit at the MoMA in NYC a couple of weeks ago, it was understandably mobbed. We visitors rotated along the walls in a tightly-packed horde, gaping and pointing. For the most part, we were reverently quiet enough so that it was startling when the fubsy guard next to the Edward Scissorhands mannequin yelled out to somebody to put a camera away. It was unbelievably cool to be that close to the nuts and bolts of someone’s imagination, especially one so wild and playful and sinister.
I was happy to plant myself with my nose a few inches from a drawing and let the people bump past me in slow-mo. I liked to take in the gist, then see how Burton used the color to fill in the lines, and most of all, I liked to see the eraser marks from where he’d changed his mind. I felt like a genius myself because I could spot, right there: that’s where Tim Burton revised. I wanted to show my niece, so I looked up to find her and saw instead these dozens of packed people.

That’s when something strange hit me. We were all there, en masse, to appreciate a mind remarkable for its singular imagination. Furthermore, we could never have as much fun looking at Burton’s stuff as he must have had making it in the first place. Something was wrong.

For most of my life, I have welcomed any chance to be dazzled by the manifestation of someone else’s imagination. I’ve sat in the driveway spell-bound listening to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto Number 2 on my radio. I’ve cried at the parade of lights in Disney World when float after impossible float rolls by. I’ve stared at Van Gogh’s swirls, and I’ve lost the capacity to speak when tasting a certain flourless chocolate cake recipe. I swooned at Avatar, naturally. I never connected what the masters were doing with their creativity to my own writing, of course. Why would I? It’s hubris even to suggest that what I scribble in a notebook touches the same realm as Shakespeare’s plays. At best, I might learn some technique from experts, some of their craft, if I poked hard enough at a model. All this time, I thought I was paying attention and fully appreciating their works, but do you know what I overlooked? The invitation.

With the ease of today’s technology, we have become so accustomed to having expert versions of everything, from the perfect music on our ipods to the precision landings of our Olympic figure skaters, that we’ve lost the entire middle tier of amateur. Anything less than perfection is a fail, so we don’t even bother with it. Mediocrity shames us. We hardly let even children be beginners; if they aren’t top-notch batters by age 10, they don’t make the team.

By the same token, many of us have surrendered our imperfect imaginations to the experts. The imaginary friends we used to take to the playground have evanesced, and now, instead, we pay money, very good money, for Tim Burton, James Cameron and the Assassin’s Creed 2 crew to entertain us. During our seduction, we’ve conversely learned to imagine not. Most ironic of all, we pay Disney to tell us and our children to dream—as if we couldn’t dream on our own. That’s just dangerous.

There was Mr. Burton urging me by his example to go imagine, and not because I might be well-paid for it some day, but because it could be fun. His invitation has doubtless been presented to me before, but never so vividly contrasted with its opposite: the mob. We still have a choice. Why should only our Shakespeares have the right to be lost in their imaginations? Why not the rest of us? We don't have to become Tim Burtons; we just have to become us.

The invitation I heard in that MoMA gallery, even more important now when we regular types risk losing our imaginations forever, is the artist’s invitation: Go make your own art. Go draw or paint or sing or write or sew or garden. There’s no time to waste. Do it badly if you must, but enjoy the scribbling and claim it as your own.


Caragh O’Brien’s futuristic, dystopian story, Birthmarked, is due out from Roaring Brook Press in April, 2010. It is her first young adult novel.

7 comments
lazysk8r
1. lazysk8r
One word "Amen"
lazysk8r
2. Gray Woodland
Yes: the professional-led and wannabe-cheered vilification of the amateur - the maker for the love of the making alone - has had rather a strong run of it this past century, and its effects are ugly enough.

Also, the professional bar will be raised higher if more people start deserting the most marginally worthwhile 'expert' products in favour of homebrew maybe less tasty to an impartial consumer, but better when combined with the pleasure of producing it.

I think there are strong reasons for people making the choices they do now - some of which are changing, and some of which probably won't change ever. I don't think despair or shame in the face of practiced proficiency are good reasons at all.

Nice jab delivered against them!
Ashe Armstrong
3. AsheSaoirse
At first I thought this was going to be about Tim Burton and how awesome he is (I don't hate the guy but I don't think he's nearly as great as everyone makes him out to be). I dig the message. I've never felt that way personally but I guess that's cause a) I've always been a daydreamer and an artist and b) had unstoppable drive to be true to myself...sometimes in ways that make me need to go against the grain.

As cool as it would be to finish school and become a successful (not necessarily famous) writer/director/artist person, I just want the success so I can keep making. The high from bringing my ideas to life is still one of the greatest things ever.
Liza .
4. aedifica
I've been enjoying your posts, this one most of all. Thanks for them!
lazysk8r
6. filkferengi
Well and truly said!

Ethnomusicologist Sally Childs-Helton said something similar upon her induction to the Filk Hall Of Fame. Her speech inspired Kathleen Sloan's classic song "Take It Back" whose refrain is "Take back the right to sing and play."
lazysk8r
7. Sunny Jim
With the ease of today’s technology, we have become so accustomed to having expert versions of everything, from the perfect music on our ipods to the precision landings of our Olympic figure skaters, that we’ve lost the entire middle tier of amateur. Anything less than perfection is a fail, so we don’t even bother with it. Mediocrity shames us. We hardly let even children be beginners; if they aren’t top-notch batters by age 10, they don’t make the team.

By and large I agree with you. The same thought has occured to me from time to time. One of my favorite scenes from the movie "Once" is a large group of people -- many of them obviously amateur -- joined together for an evening of music. In music, particularly, we have left it up to the pros -- and technology has been a big instigator. And as a parent I have seen first hand the Tyranny of the Travel Team.

But when I stop to think about it, I see many signs of hope, as well. My son spent the evening up in his room with a friend writing a song and laying the tracks down on his computer -- with the thought of maybe putting it up on Facebook when they're done. And while a movie like Avatar can overwhelm the imagination (as we let James Cameron do what our own minds should be doing), it can also spur scads of fan fiction. I shouldn't be surprised if Birthmarked does that when it comes out. There are open mic nights all over the place, and as for sports, there are plenty of outlets for overaged athletes to play out their fantasies.

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