When I was eight, I got into my first heated creative dispute. My opponent was a neighborhood friend named Darla.
When Darla came over, she only wanted to play house. She would bring a pouty-looking baby doll and, at her prompting, we would pretend that it needed a bottle-feeding or a diaper change.
Darla never tired of the game, but I found the “plot line” boring. After a few times of changing imaginary diapers and dispensing nonexistent milk, my tolerance reached its limit. I was not a fan of excrement in my real life; I did not want it in my pretend world. Besides, why should I offer a bottle to an inanimate object who could not appreciate my efforts? It was a waste of time and imagination.
One day, I made a bold, alternative suggestion. I said, “What if, instead of pretending that this is a real baby with a soiled diaper, we pretended that this was just a babydoll, but that it was a magic babydoll?”
Just saying the words sent a thrill through me as I considered all the new possibilities my proposal permitted. I waited for my friend to congratulate me for the exciting new direction I had suggested.
Instead, she frowned. “Magic?”
“Yes,” I said, “magic. Maybe we could somehow use the doll to go back in time to when there were dinosaurs. Or we could use the doll to open up a portal to another world. You can do anything with a magic babydoll.”
Darla was silent for a very long time. Finally, she said, “But I don’t want to pretend the babydoll is magic. That’s silly!”
Her prompt dismissal deflated me. I had been proud of my idea. Why did people get so offended whenever you suggested anything interesting? Clearly, my friend had no imagination whatsoever, and I gave up trying to reason with her.
Looking back, I wonder if I might have been too hard on my friend Darla, who was only doing what many “normal” eight year old girls do. But I still think my magic baby doll idea was far superior to changing imaginary soiled undergarments. Maybe my idea was silly, but at least it was interesting. Why would anyone not want to be lifted from the mundane world of babydoll waste to visit dinosaurs, even if it did mean being a little silly?
At age 8 it was easy to think that way. Unfortunately, the older I got, the more uncomfortable I became with seeming “silly.” Being bullied in elementary school taught me that saying original things was risky; originality invited mockery.
By adolescence, inhibition had strangled almost every creative impulse I had, and driven the rest underground. At school I sat primly at my desk with crossed legs, stiff as a mannequin, and tried to say only the tedious, safe things most people considered normal. In public my vocabulary shrank to the words, “Thank you,” “Your Welcome,” and “Hi.” When a situation called for more, I would smile politely and hope my friendly demeanor would be enough to render my behavior passably sane.
I lived in constant fear of saying anything stupid or even anything that could possibly be interpreted by anyone anywhere in the world as being stupid. I lived in constant fear of saying anything stupid or anything that could possibly even be construed as stupid. Silly and stupid seemed closely related, and I did my best to steer clear of both.
It was decades later that I realized the ability to be “silly” (i.e. original) was a lost treasure; that is, the ability to forget how everyone knows things ought to be in favor of something new, untested, and thus susceptible to derision.
What good can come from being silly? Well, without the willingness to be silly, the world would have never experienced the oddball physics of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In the Looney Tunes Universe, If a character, say Elmer Fudd, walks off a precipice, he remains elevated as long as he does not realize there is nothing underneath him. But as soon as he looks down, he panics, flails his arms, and falls. He drops straight through the earth like a meteorite, and leaves a perfect silhouette of his body in the earth, free of rough edges or impact lines, neat as a cardboard cutout. Moreover, the fall never really kills him. In the next scene, Elmer Fudd is walking around calmly as if nothing bad had ever happened.
Someone could have said to the cartoonist, “No, no, no, that would never happen in real life. Gravity doesn’t care if you notice it or not, and people who fall from a long distance get injured or die. Come up with something that people will understand and start over.” I’m glad that never happened. The silly Looney Tunes animator sculpted a cartoon universe that was awesomely different from anything anyone had ever seen before; an arguable “stupid” idea gave rise to a world with an alternative physics.
Writing three novels and many short stories has confirmed my belief that absurdity is a doorway into creativity. Embracing the whimsical and bizarre as possible solutions to creative problems, even though everyone else knows “better,” is a path to originality. Maybe not every silly idea will work, but with skillful execution, many will.
What does it mean to say an idea is silly? When I hear the word, I imagine a clown taking a pratfall, a thin attempt at humor, something crass and shallow and never thoughtful. Or I think of the kind of serious, self-important endeavor that fails epically like the movie “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Since the word “silly” suggests indignity and failure, few people want anything to do with it.
That is why techniques like mind-mapping and brainstorming are often necessary to bypass the inhibitions that attempt to protect our egos by ensuring that our all our thoughts appear sane and “normal” to others, an attitude that leads to art that is boring, safe, and predictable.
One of my favorite writers John Knowles said that all great writing, including the most “serious” works like the plays of Shakespeare, contains “an element of play.” I like what he said about Shakespeare. I read Hamlet for the first time, on my own, when I was 14. In the midst of my frustration to penetrate the lofty dialogue, I hit upon the famous line said by Hamlet after glimpsing the skull of a beloved, former court jester, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him…” The whimsical line took me completely off guard, and it was hard not to imagine that Shakespeare, somewhere in his mind, was laughing.
My theory is this: If you choose to go the silly route in creating art, you may fail gloriously and end up mortified, BUT if you execute the idea in such a way that your preposterous idea works as well as Bugs Bunny physics, your art has the potential to transcend itself and become a celebrated work of genius.
There are many examples in popular culture where ridiculous ideas have been so beautifully executed, no one cares how silly they are. An excellent example is the superhero genre. What could be sillier than men putting on tights, capes, and loud uniforms, using superpowers derived from “radiation”? And how absurd is it that Clark Kent’s eyeglasses so effectively disguise his true identity as Superman?
Such conventions make no “sense,” but somehow the superhero genre thrives. Diehard comic book fans are able to suspend what they know about the real world in order to enter a fantasy realm where humans can fly without wings and where all it takes is a pair of eyeglasses to conceal who you really are.
Besides, the superhero genre is “deeper” than it appears. It does offer a form of escapism, but it also delves into the nature of good and evil, along with the uses and pitfalls of power. Some of the comics contain witty dialogue and intricate story lines.
The same is true of the ridiculously titled Joss Whedon show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” For a show that sounds like a cheaply made, campy horror comedy, the show reveals surprising dimensions of emotional depth. Monsters and supernatural events become metaphors for the growing pains of adolescence, as in one episode where a quiet girl who is ignored by classmates literally becomes invisible. Many episodes achieve high drama while addressing the serious themes of death, courage, cruelty, and love. That a show with a title like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” can achieve any artistic depth at all makes me wonder if any absurd idea can work if properly executed.
In art, writing, and movies, there seems to be a very fine line between silly and awesome.
That is not a bad thing for writers to remember when trying to explain their concept for a novel to someone else. I always hate explaining my story concepts to people because they always sound ridiculous when reduced to plot points. I feel like a breathless little kid trying to explain my immature story concept to a impatient adult: “And then the vampires came out! But that was right before they all went back in time and got on the spaceship bound for a planet called, um, Bazooka, that was full of twerking gorilla people.” (Pant, pant).
But reduce almost any respectable work of fiction it to its plot summary, and it will be hard not to roll your eyes. “Farm boy gets caught up in an interstellar war against an evil empire and gads about in a clunky space ship with his robot buddies, a snarky scoundrel, and a tall shaggy creature that has a cooing growl and saves the Galaxy and a princess that turns out to be his sister – and get this! Their father is the eviler-than-evil head of the evil empire!” There are very few things in this world – no matter how awesome – that no one can make fun of.
Embracing absurdity toward the end of originality requires a kind of courage that others may never honor you for having. It means caring more about the art itself than my need to be respectable at all times. For my latest fantasy novel Paw I chose as my main character an intelligent bipedal cat, a protagonist inspired by the video game Skyrim. When I asked my proofreader if he had started reading it, he said, “Oh. Yeah. It’s about cat people.”
I cringed. When he put it like that, it sounded so…silly. But damn it, I had an idea for bipedal cat creatures in my head; they wanted to be written about, and who was I to say no to them? At least no one could accuse me of being trite.
I wanted to write a book I had never read, even if I did have to struggle with how to make it sound sensible on a cover blurb. Originality may not be the same as absurdity, but I do think absurdity is a sign post that points you in the direction of the unknown – the rich, unexplored, exciting, dangerous, and fertile areas of the imagination.
If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my new novel “The Ghosts of Chimera” will soon be published by the folks over at Rooster and Pig Publishing.