Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Imagination: Not Just for Kids

“Dearest dumpling, one day your imagination is going to get you into trouble," whispered his mother.

He would never do that," Pecorino replied. "We're best friends.”

Pecorino's First Concert, by Alan Madison

A quote has been making the rounds lately on the social networks:

I found a few sources that attribute it to sci-fi author Ursula LeGuin, and one had it as part of a longer thought:

The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them “grown up”. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world.

The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.

I'm sure there are some practical-minded types who read this and think something like, "That's the excuse artistic-types use in an attempt to justify the fact that they don't contribute anything substantial to society or produce anything useful."  And perhaps the defense the quote makes is necessary in the face of this kind of thinking.

But surviving to adulthood with childlike creativity may be more than just an artistic benefit; there may be very practical and useful aspects to it as well.  I'm early in the reading of (well, listening to) David Brooks's book, The Social Animal.  In it, he explores a wealth of recent research about just how social humans are in our very construction and how success as a social being is key to financial security and emotional well-being.  He writes in the introduction:

The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, character over IQ, emergent, organic systems over linear, mechanistic ones, and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self.

In chapter 4, the idea of childhood imagination and creativity comes up.  It sounds, in some ways, quite similar to the LeGuin quote, and is his description of a child who will grow up very successful due to his social nature.

We sometimes think that imagination is cognitively easy because children can use it better than adults.  In fact, imagination is arduous and practical.  People who possess imaginative talents can say, "If I were you, I would do this. . . . "  Or they can think, "I'm doing it this way now, but if I tried to do it that way, things might go faster."  These doublescope and counterfactual abilities come in quite handy in real life. . . . 

One Saturday afternoon, Harold had a few buddies over to the house for a playdate. . . . Each kid would assign himself a role in the master story. . . . They would have elaborate negotiations over what was legitimate to do in the world of pretend, in the shared space they had constructed.  Even in the free-form world of their imaginations, it was apparently still necessary to have rules, and they spent so much time talking about the rules, Rob got the impression that they were more important than the story itself. . . .

After about twenty minutes playing Benjamin Spock and watching the kiddies, Rob got the urge to join in.  He sat down with the boys, grabbed some figures, and joined Harold's team.

This was a big mistake.  It was roughly the equivalent of a normal human being grabbing a basketball and inviting himself to play a pickup game with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Over the course of his adult life, Rob had trained his mind to excel at a certain sort of thinking.  This is the kind that psychologist Jerome Brunner has called "paradigmatic thinking."  This mode of thought is structured by logic and analysis.  It's the language of a legal brief, a business memo, or an academic essay.  It consists of stepping back from a situation to organize facts, to deduce general principles, and to ask questions.

But the game Harold and his buddies were playing relied on a different way of thinking, what Bruner calls the "narrative mode."  Harold and his buddies had now become a team of farmers on a ranch.  They just started doing things on it--riding, roping, building, and playing.  As their stories grew and evolved, it became clear what made sense and what didn't make sense within the line of the story. . . . 

Rob was like a warthog in a frolic of gazelles.  Their imaginations danced while his plodded.  They saw good and evil while he saw plastic and metal.  After five minutes, their emotional intensity produced a dull ache in the back of his head.  He was exhausted trying to keep up.

The "paradigmatic thinking" is, of course, important to have in at least some measure as an adult just for the sake of being responsible and managing life.  But, it seems to me, in becoming more "adult" in our thinking, we would all benefit from holding onto our "narrative mode," our ability to play in the realm of imagination with stories and creative, intuitive, free-flowing connections.  We might do better in life if we don't "grow up" quite so much.

I've heard said that all the loser nerds of the 80s are the successful types now running the world.  Reading that section of Brooks's book strongly reminded me of playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games.  It's really quite the same process, with each person assuming a role in the story and the group negotiating the narrative together.  I've been calling it "group storytelling" for a long time now when trying to explain the appeal and mechanics of the game to people.

I like the way Mark Barrowcliffe describes it in his book The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange.  I first quoted this here.

I think this is the soul of why role-playing games like D&D and EPT were so popular with young boys. They provided a trellis work for the imagination to climb upon and thrive. Unsupported, your day dreams can wither; backed up by rules, pictures, model figures and the input of others, there's no end to the amount of brain space they can consume. . . .

The power of the story, either writing or reading or listening to one, is that the imagination is tied to something that makes it go forward. . . .

D&D is, I believe, something virtually unique and unprecedented in human history. It's a story you can listen to at the same time as telling it. You can be surprised by the plot's twists and turns, but you can surprise too. It's more interactive than any other sort of narrative I can think of. If its subject matter were more serious then it would probably be considered a new art form, and it's probably surprising that nothing beyond murder mystery dinners has ever been evolved from it. This is why D&D is so addictive when it's played right. It's like the best story you've ever read combined with the charge a good storyteller feels as he plays his audience.

I think there's a basic human need to listen to stories, but also to tell them. In D&D you get that tingle you imagine when you think of the ancient storytellers, dusk falling, the camp fire burning and the first line being read. It's not like hearing "In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit," it's like saying it for the first time and to a rapt audience that is dying for your next sentence.

I have finished games feeling physically drained and actually wanted to continue to have my characters buy food at a shop or smoke a pipe in a tavern just to calm down before breaking with the game world entirely. And sometimes even that wasn't enough. The crucial difference between conventional forms of storytelling and D&D is that D&D doesn't have to finish. Ever. It's an open-ended story, and, if you're emotionally engaged with it, the temptation is just to keep going.

And just as the boys Brooks describes were constantly negotiating the rules of their shared imaginary world, so are the rules of games like D&D constantly in revision; both the official materials and each particular group's "house rules" are always fluid as those involved try to find the right balance of logical consistency to guide them and openness to imagination and fun.  Some players get shunned for being argumentative "rules lawyers" and it's importance to find a group whose style meshes with your own.

Barrowcliffe provides another good example, which I first shared here:

I spent a lot of time wondering what the gleam on +3 armour looked like or the edge on a flaming sword. When I was having these thoughts, though, I wasn't aware I was purely exercising my imagination. To me, I was involved in a deductive process--like when historians say, "From what we can piece together, we believe the songs of the Vikings would have sounded something like this . . . " I was referring to a world that, in my mind, actually existed and, like my journey home that day or my release from school on a Friday lunchtime, its lack was felt more keenly for it's proximity than its distance.

We had plenty of arguments on this basis in the wargames room--whether the acid from a giant ant would be strong enough to corrode through metal bars, for instance, as one enterprising character attempted to remove himself from a cage by this method.

The conversation would become incredibly detailed, with recourse to periodic tables and encyclopaedias. Of course, the only real answer is that the acid of a giant ant can burn through metal if the referee--the dungeonmaster--says it can. It's his world; he designed it, and, if he wants, the ant's sting can contain specific metal-melting compounds or pure water. We didn't see this at the time, though. We thought we could uncover the reality of the situation through argument.

It is sad to note that, even at this distance of years and without having to look it up, I know formic acid (the stuff in your everyday ant) does not combine with metals and is used in tanning and, crucially, wire stripping. It takes off the insulation but leaves the wire untouched. In high concentrations this would make it burn flesh but not the bars of a cage. This is the sort of stuff I was learning while others were concentrating on how to be nice to a girl.

And, really, in a very broad sense, isn't this what we're doing when we discuss politics and religion, when we gossip and spread rumors, when we create mission and vision statements for our workplaces, when we try to figure out how to live with one another as neighbors and define ourselves as communities--aren't we really just negotiating the rules of our shared games and trying to find groups to be part of whose styles match our own?  How we define reality is up to all of us to figure out together, and it happens in the interplay between us.


If you've lost touch with imaginative child play there are, of course, many sources for rediscovering it.  One of my recent favorites, though, is Axe Cop.  Here are the reviews I wrote for the first two books:

Axe Cop, vol. 1, by Malachai and Ethan Nicolle:

It seems I’m a bit late to this party since I missed Axe Cop as a webcomic. Nevertheless, I must now have my say: this concept is absolutely genius and the execution is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

A few years ago, Ethan Nicolle was playing with his five-year-old brother Malachai and decided it would be fun to take Malachai’s imagined play and illustrate it as a superhero comic. It all started when Malachai took a toy police officer and added a firefighter’s axe. They grabbed another figure and the nearest weapon-like implement at hand—a recorder, which led to Axe Cop’s first partner, Flute Cop—and went to chop off the heads of dinosaurs and other sundry bad guys.

In his book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, Gerard Jones argues that the young use violent fantasies as a way of coping with their real-life powerlessness, smallness, and helplessness—the point is not mutilation and bloodshed but power, a desire to have some kind of ability to control their circumstances: young people [use] fantasies of combat in order to feel stronger, to access their emotions, to take control of their anxieties, to calm themselves down in the face of real violence, to fight their way through emotional challenges and lift themselves to new developmental levels. The violence is pretend in its purest form and in no way reflects any desire to do actual harm; it’s all about wanting to deal with forces beyond their control.

So in Malachai’s fantasies we see plenty of violence, but all in the quest for more power to vanquish scary bad guys. And because he is only five, we get none of the worries with logic or consistency or reality that too often limit the imaginations of older writers (as Dav Pilkey talks about with Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future), with wild and hilarious results. Axe Cop doesn’t just have a pet T. Rex, he has a pet T. Rex that breathes fire, has a super-duper fast bite, wears cop glasses and a cop badge shaped like himself, has robot-machine-gun arms, feeds on bad guys, can fly to catch bad guys on the moon and sun, and has spikes that only stab you if you are bad (and whose worst enemy is a lamp that comes alive early in the morning). Axe Cop is constantly holding tryouts for more partners to make himself more powerful and even gets a part-time job at a fruit stand so he can afford to buy more guns. When he encounters a giant robot with two swords and one eye that is too big for head-chopping with an axe, Axe Cop from nowhere pulls out a baby with a magical unicorn horn to throw at the robot’s eye and explode its head. Axe Cop doesn’t just chop off the heads of bad guys, he also shoots them, blows them up, poisons them, and uses any other form of death-dealing Malachai can imagine. He also never rests because he spends each night sneaking into bad guys’ houses to kill them in their sleep. But don’t worry, there’s a morality to it all—if he could do anything he wanted, he would make a bomb that only kills bad guys and would make sure to turn all the aliens evil before killing them all, so that no one undeserving has to die.

Ethan takes these wild imaginings and brings them to life splendidly. His illustrations are fun and he does his best to accurately portray Malachai’s intentions without parody or satire, so they end up more “realistic” than cartoonish or stylized. If only all five-year-olds had someone like Malachai to bring their imaginations to life this way, because the opportunity to share in them is a joyful delight.

Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth, by Malachai and Ethan Nicolle:

I don't think I can adequately convey how much I love Axe Cop, from concept to execution. It really is a window into the mind of child at play, having fun with imagination and stories, with no concern for logic or the absurdities that result. I laugh often and the entire time I'm reading I'm smiling, feeling the freedom of childhood.

On the very first page, we get:

Axe cop saw a cup of water sitting at the next table. So he drank it . . . and it screamed. "Hey, stop that!! You just drank my friend's brain!!" It turned out that Mr. Hammer and Mr. Cup were having breakfast, and Axe Cop had accidentally drunk Mr. Cup's brain.

The rest of the book is much more focused on good guys and bad guys and fighting action, but equally inventive and ludicrous. There's time travel and space travel, bad guys who turn into giants and steal the entire army in the middle of the night, vikings, aliens, pirates, monsters, zombies, animals, wrestlers, and ghost knights, magical unicorn horns, alternate identities, an entire planet of people turned into talking animals that never existed on earth, and so much more. And this: Then a lion chasing a pig ran in front of the truck. They hit the lion and it died. Then the pig ate it. It turned into super lion pig. And this: All the chickens' brains popped out. The brains turned into bad guys. They had robotic body parts and swords. They killed the farmer and then chased a cow. Their eyes were cameras.

If you're not familiar with Axe Cop, it's written by a six-year-old and drawn by his thirty-year-old brother. They get out Malachai's toys and play and tell stories. Ethan records them, then does his best to illustrate what happened. Malachai provides input and corrections until they come up with a final product. Ethan does a brilliant job, and explains their process in more detail at the end of the book.

Unlike the first Axe Cop book, which was a collection of short stories and incidents, this is one sustained narrative that centers on a pair of evildoers stealing one of Axe Cop's machines, altering it, and turning everyone on earth into a bad guy. With, of course, an epic battle to end all battles at the climax and a satisfying conclusion. It's most fun.


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