Or that would have been the end if I were not a writer. Long after my dog had sniffed ten additional trees along our trajectory, I was still thinking about this guy. What was he about? What was up with the winter clothing in August? What if I was the only person who said a word to this guy all day? What if the fact that I spoke to him was a “sign” to the guy that he would not have to kill me? This game of “what if” spun along in my mind for the next couple of days into a disturbing story about a serial killer with multiple personalities. “Something Like a Person” creeps me out because I don’t like the main character in the story. Giving him life is like giving birth to the baby in It’s Alive.
I didn’t set out to write a story about a serial killer. It just came after I saw that guy on the street and asked “what if,” which is the heart of storytelling. A writer’s mind takes one little thing and asks “What if THIS happened instead of THIS?” Then the writer adds her Cousin Barney’s bad breath and a peek at a road map and Poof! she’s got a story.
Stories come in dreams as well. A few weeks ago, I dreamed about a tattooed arm handcuffed to a dock—yup, just the arm--which turned into my Boucheron Anthology story, “Tsunami Surprise.” Stories come in jars: just over a year ago, my son found a dried-out wolf spider and brought it home, and that sad little event morphed into “Spider Bites,” about a gal with a mother’s love for arachnids.
Which leads me to ask: Does my having written these two stories mean I am a serial killer or a lover of spiders? Does eating a hamburger mean I hate cows? No. Just because I can imagine something happening doesn’t mean I want it to happen. I can imagine my adult son crashing his car, but if it actually happened, I would—I don’t even know what I would, it would be that awful.
I bet you, too, can imagine something without believing in it, wanting it, or condoning it.
For example, the intro to the TV show Castle, starring the ever-fabulous Nathan Fillion goes like this: “There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people: Psychopaths and mystery writers. I’m the kind that pays better. Who am I? I’m Rick Castle.” Nobody, but nobody, with whom Castle works would suspect him of being a psychopath (okay, in one episode he’s a suspect, but put that aside). Castle is a writer. He is expected to use his imagination. It’s part of who he is. It’s required for what he does. Castle, like me, has a brain that launches “What if” scenarios even in his sleep.
But having a talent for “what if” was undervalued recently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when a middle school teacher (Patrick McLaw) was taken in for a medical evaluation and suspended from his job when it was discovered he had written two fictional books about a school shooting. “Fictional” as in “made up” or “not real.” This teacher, let it also be noted, had been nominated for Teacher of the Year and had made national headlines when he helped a 14-year-old student self-publish his own e-books on Amazon.com.
Why would a teacher imagine a horrible thing like a school shooting? Could it be because this teacher, like every teacher, is in the line of fire and it’s on his mind? Could it be because he knows he could be the next person to die defending his students in yet another town where “we never imagined it could happen here”--except that Patrick McLaw DID imagine it? His reward for using his imagination—for playing “what if”--was to be suspended and to have his classroom searched and to have his superintendent say, “the gentleman has been placed on administrative leave, and has been prohibited from entering any Dorchester County public school property."
Okay, okay, we live in a crazy world. People are testy. Inclined to incivility. Argumentative. (For confirmation, check your liberal relatives’ responses to your conservative Facebook posts. Or vice versa). People find it hard to “live and let live” to a point where a whole lot of folks don’t put the smackdown on Stupid any more out of fear that Stupid will slash their tires or worse. I get that. I also grant that Mr. McLaw may have violated some clause in his employment contract, or maybe his book’s bad guy is a body double for his superintendent. I have no idea.
But, says United Liberty about McLaw, “Folks, the idea of freedom to write what we want to write is essential to liberty. No, he wasn’t writing some political treatise that would protect all that we hold holy as Americans, but so what? The rule isn’t there to just protect some works, it’s there to protect them all. That includes novels written by a teacher, no matter how much bad taste is involved.”
“Bad taste” references that McLaw wrote about students getting killed, which is supposed to be, and is, a teacher’s worst nightmare. That’s why teachers think about it, worry about it, practice escape plans in the event the nightmare walks their own halls. If I had to, I’d guess that’s why McLaw wrote about a school shooting: it’s his worst nightmare.
Nightmares of a different sort are made flesh in fairy tales, a genre that takes it on the chin now and again. One objection to traditional fairy tales is that the violence in them might scar children’s psyches. K.J. Dell'Antonia of the New York Times asked in November 2011 whether fairytales are really for children. She agonized, “when you turn the page of a familiar tale and find yourself saying, ‘And presently he fell upon the good woman and ate her up in a moment’ to your wide-eyed child — [it] stirs something universal in parents just as experts say fairy tales speak to something universal in kids. It’s not that we don’t think our kids have contemplated being orphaned or eaten by beasts. It’s that we don’t want to appear to condone that kind of thing.”
If parents fear their children will get the wrong idea about parental values if the kids hear the parents reading a fairy tale, something else here may need to be addressed, because reading aloud or listening to an idea doesn’t mean you condone it. Voltaire’s biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In 1644, John Milton argued in Areopagitica “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) defends freedom of expression by insisting that truth drives out falsity; therefore the free expression of ideas, true or false, should not be feared.
The idea of a free marketplace of ideas seems to have escaped evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who says it is wicked to teach children about things that could never happen such as a frog turning into a prince. But according to G.K. Chesterton, "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."
Dangerous things happen in fairy tales. Dangerous things happen in real life, sometimes brought on by dangerous ideas. We could stop allowing people to have dangerous ideas if somebody could figure out how to turn us all into Lotus-eaters. Until that happens, however, dangerous ideas are here to stay and are, in fact, examined at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) held over the weekend at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Simon Longstaff, co-curator of FODI, says, “Our objective in presenting dangerous ideas is not that these ideas be promoted or adopted, but simply that they be encountered and, thus, assessed on their merits. … We believe that ideas of all kinds are best exposed to the light of reason and discernment.” Basically, the festival posits that dangerous ideas exist, so there should be a way to look at them without endangering ourselves. Hence, FODI.
Hence, fiction. Fiction—whether it’s a story about a serial killer or a book about a school shooting or a fairy tale about a wicked stepmother—allows us to try on a variety of scenarios and wrestle with the way the world works. We play “what if” along with the characters, we make choices in tandem with or in opposition to them, and in doing so we learn who we are, who we want to be, and who we CAN be.
So don’t shun people who can imagine the worst. Instead, thank them for showing us how to handle evil when we run into it, no matter how ugly—or how pretty—it looks from where we’re standing.