Today I made the mistake of rejecting the ideas of a creative mind.
My friend and I were taking the bus back to the University after a lunch break, and he suggested we take the bus in the direction away from the University, to experience a quick tour through a part of the city neither of us had been in before. The extended route wasn’t that long — it would take maybe only ten minutes more than the bus that could take us directly to the University. I refused to take the longer route with him, and we both ended up taking the usual bus back to class.
I told myself later that I had said no to his idea because I wanted to hurry back and get some reading done, and that I really didn’t like riding buses in general, so the less time spent on them the better, but these were just excuses. The truth was I didn’t want to break my pattern, and I was unwilling to expend the extra energy to explore. I like to define myself as being naturally drawn to adventure and creativity, and yet I was too afraid and content to simply take a new bus route.
This is the danger of patterned lives. In David Usher’s book Let the Elephants Run, he notes that “human beings are creatures of habit. We love patterns, we love predictability, and we love routine. We tend to go to the same places, to do the same things in the same ways most of the time. Trying something new is, for most of us, the exception rather than the rule. … It is completely natural for us to want to retreat to the safety of our routines. But to be creative, we need to go against our nature and step outside these patterns.”
It is very interesting how one’s lifestyle can shape one’s creative (or non-creative) thoughts. If, as an artist, one wants to create something that has never been created before, he or she must be doing things outside his or her comfort zone. In order to achieve true creativity, one must be thinking in creative ways, and often this type of thinking comes from thrusting oneself into uncomfortable, against-the-routine, situations.
On what may seem an unrelated note, my writing professor recently directed my class to a quotation by Anton Chekhov, in an attempt to illustrate the need for a short story to be a complete and perfect unit.
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
This quotation expresses the desire within an audience for a story to be coherent and satisfying. All loose ends must be tied together, and any promise made at the beginning of a story must be kept. This is very sound advice when writing short stories. No one wants to read something that rambles on in the beginning about purple toads and then finishes with only blue elephants. That doesn’t feel like a story, that feels like a waste of time (although, purple toads are decently entertaining on their own).
But I will argue that this quotation must be interpreted with care. There is something lurking beneath its pragmatic appearance, something rigid and two-dimensional that may lead one to be scared of anything but straight-lined thinking and the routine path. The quotation is essentially a set of rules, and, like any set of rules, it must either control one entirely or be broken.
I will now provide three rather famous examples that break this “rule.” None of these are short stories, so perhaps the quotation does not apply, but nonetheless I believe they are each wonderful examples of loose ends left untied. They are mysterious stories forever unsolved, and they are entirely effective.
1. The Mist, by Stephen King
In this novella, the world is engulfed in a thick, white mist, in which live horrific, literally unimaginable creatures. When the protagonist and a few companions escape their supermarket hideout, they drive down a highway road and encounter a monster so massive it cannot be described in human words.
“Something came; again, that is all I can say for sure. It may have been the fact that the mist only allowed us to glimpse things briefly, but I think it just as likely that there are certain things that your brain simply disallows. There are things of such darkness and horror — just, I suppose, as there are things of such great beauty — that they will not fit through the puny human doors of perception.
… I don’t know how big it actually was, but it passed directly over us. One of its gray, wrinkled legs smashed down right beside my window, and Mrs. Reppler said later she could not see the underside of its body, although she craned her neck up to look. She saw only two Cyclopean legs going up and up into the mist like living towers until they were lost to sight.
For the moment it was over the Scout I had an impression of something so big that it might have made a blue whale look the size of a trout — in other words, something so big that it defied the imagination. Then it was gone, sending a seismological series of thuds back.”
The appearance of this creature is something I have questioned again and again ever since I finished the novella, years ago. It is a hole in a story that my brain naturally wants filled. I want explanation. I want completeness. But the whole point of the unimaginably large monster is that it reaches beyond the limits of the brain. In this way it causes the reader, as it caused the author, I am sure, to break away from the usual form of satisfaction and perfection. The scene is uncomfortable, but purposefully so. It presents without fear the wildness and limitlessness of creativity.
2. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg
This book is especially peculiar because it has no definitive narrative arc. It is a collection of drawings, each accompanied by a title and caption; it is a compilation of unfinished stories. All the drawings are presented in fuzzy black and white, and all are equally magical. Wallpaper peels itself from the walls, bumps crawl under the carpet, and vines twist out from the pages of an open book. This book is full of beginnings, but no endings. It is entirely loose ends. But this is what it is meant to be. Van Allsburg writes in his introduction that the Burdick drawings were reproduced “in the hope that other children [would] be inspired by them.” The drawings were made public as a tool for the imagination, a way to stretch the brain rather than comfortably satisfy it.
3. A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket
An interesting concept introduced in the eleventh book of this thirteen-book series is the “Great Unknown.” I call it a concept because although it is a physical reality in the books, it is never exactly defined. It remains a mysterious shape, swimming through the ocean.
“At the top of the screen was another shape — one they had almost forgotten about. It was a long curved tube, with a small circle at the end of it, slithering slowly down the screen like a snake, or an enormous question mark, or some terrible evil the children could not even imagine.”
The “Great Unknown” takes the shape of a question mark, and the question it presents is never answered. Like the creature in The Mist, it exceeds the limits of the imagination. On one hand, being called the “Great Unknown,” it obviously represents death, but on the other hand it simply represents what it is — the great unknown. It is a void or space beyond knowledge and experience, that which leaves one terrified and without words. It allows for no conclusiveness, and only imagination.
All of these examples have a very distinct function, but they are still loose ends. They are unexplained parts of a story that hang suspended, incomplete: questions never to be answered. They are a deviation from the normal story pattern, and perhaps they are a nudge. A nudge in the direction of creativity, of the opening of the mind, and of the mysteries that lie beyond the straight and narrow path.
I advise you (as I advise myself) to ride the bus that takes you on an alternate route. Don’t shut down the creative endeavors of others, and don’t shut down your own. Don’t be afraid of the abyss, the limitless, and the different. Don’t be afraid to break your patterns, or to experiment. Don’t be afraid of discomfort, and don’t be afraid of endings that are not perfectly conclusive. Don’t be afraid of —