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What Stephen King taught me about fiction and the imagination
He says that writers of fiction are God’s Liars. Their primary duty is to tell us the truth about ourselves, by telling us lies about people who never existed. That seems a perfect description to me. and i like the way it contradicts the idea that all stories (all art) are out there waiting to be discovered. the lies which tell us the truth about ourselves are waiting for us to unearth them. One of the many forms of the Imagination is a gorilla. a mad gorilla, rampaging, dangerous, and totally out of control. We have a cage for it, to keep it from destroying our sanity with its primitive behaviour. Children’s cages are much more flimsy than ours, and while some adults have built safes with time delay locks which never open, others have their minds in such a mess that the gorilla comes and goes at will. Maybe, he says, the reason writers of fantasy often have such young faces is that they they have never taken the trouble to strengthen the cage. They are like the lazy pigs who built their house of straw – but instead of learning their lesson when it gets knocked down, the writer of fantasy simply rebuilds with straw again. In a crazy kind of way, he or she likes it when the wolf comes and blows it down, just as they like it when the gorilla escapes from its cage. When people read (or watch) horror stories, they agree to let the gorilla out of the cage for a while. Within the covers of a book, or the walls of the cinema, it’s safe to let him jump around and smash things, because when it’s over you can close the cage and go outside and get on with your rational, reasonable life. If it’s been a long time though, or you keep your imagination heavily sedated, the gorilla might have developed an institutional mentality, and it might have to be prodded out with a stick. Because you have to let him get a bit of exercise from time to time, or he will get sick or die. And that is a significant loss – even if you’re scared of him, he’s still a part of you. [it occurs to me that you could rewrite this in Jungian terms. i leave that as an exercise for the writer] He also told me that Coleridge was the author of the idea of ‘suspension of disbelief’. Coleridge describes it very well (poetically, even), but stephen king adds the idea that the muscles you use to keep your disbelief off the ground atrophy as you grow up. The younger you are the more disbelief you can suspend. Which means that as you ‘mature’, the things you disbelieve in have to be more and more believable, and the disbelieving has to be done in a carefully controlled environment. I haven’t really done him justice, but it’s all in On Writing.
Andrew Lorien June 01