As I wind down my residency at the library, a two-part reflection on the role of the writer in today’s world: why we need the imagination more than ever, and why what we write matters—urgently.
The Role of The Writer, Part 1: Resisting the disimagination machine
“Paper is the strongest material in the world,” says the English writer Nadeem Aslam. “Things under which a mountain will crumble, you can place on paper and it will hold: beauty at its most intense; love at its fiercest; the greatest grief; the greatest rage.”
As writers, it is paper that we’ve traditionally entrusted with our words (even if today those words are sometimes virtual!) It’s paper sewn into books that holds the world’s memory, and fiction and poetry carry the history of the world’s imagination.
Yet imagination today seems to be under assault, or at the very least, suspect. We pay lip service to imaginative activity, but we also dismiss it as ‘daydreaming,’ ‘fancy,’ ‘building castles in the air.’
In fact we only really value the imagination if it can be harnessed to some money-making end. We call this “being practical.” And we behave as though the practical world of reason and logic and planning is the only real one.
Remember Thomas Gradgrind, the hard-nosed school superintendent in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times? “Facts alone are wanted in life,” he announces to a terrified class of school children. “Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”
Gradgrind is a caricature, but his utilitarian approach to life has become, if anything, even more entrenched in contemporary society. The writer and teacher Henry Giroux has a term for our modern world: the “disimagination machine.” We seem to have forgotten that we humans have used our creativity to invent everything from tools to clothing to language, and that nothing exists without the imagination.
The American cultural thinker Arlene Goldbard has another term for our time. She calls it “Datastan.” It’s a place controlled by data, by statistics, by the logical mind. It’s a world that has no time for the imagination, which it considers irrelevant, if not downright dangerous.
But in a society that is always teaching us to forget, we need the world of imagination to remember who we are. We’ve always used the arts to express something otherwise inexpressible: our deepest emotional and spiritual selves. Arlene Goldbard calls this world “Storyland,” and it comes alive each time a reader opens a book and plunges in.
Storyland is every bit as real as Datastan (something we know when we lose ourselves in the world of a book). In fact, it’s more real. What we call reality changes—the world of Datastan didn’t exist a hundred years ago—but the world of Storyland, the world of the imagination, has always existed.
Storyland is a place that all writers, and all readers, are invested in preserving because it’s where our minds are at their freest. It’s a place where readers and writers collaborate in creating those fictional worlds, those theatres of the mind where we are nourished by the real and the authentic.
Storyland is also a place where we gain strength to resist the forces that want to control our minds and our beliefs and ultimately our souls. It’s a place that reminds us who we actually are—storytelling animals who are part of the natural world and the whole cosmos, and whose bodies are literally created from the elements of stardust.
When we live in the world of Datastan most of the time, it can be hard to find paths that take us out of it. But there are many such paths and many secret doors, and we can share with each other—we can whisper to each other—the names of those doorways. That’s how, as writers and readers, we resist the disimagination machine.
Next blog post (April 14): The Role of the Writer, Part 2: Writing the Necessary
It’ll be my last post as the 2015–2016 Writer-in-Residence. You can contact me until April 30th at email@example.com.