Saturday, May 20, 2006

The "Not Real" vs. the "Real"

I was telling someone tonight that I like to turn on The Lord of the Rings while I'm writing a paper, because then it's there for me to pop in and out of and usually lasts about as long as it takes to write a draft of a ten-page paper. In the conversation that followed, she mentioned that she supposed TV could be a kind of company in a way. Since then, I've been thinking about the potentially good and potentially bad aspects of that.

First, the potentially bad. There's something that seems a bit anti-social (in the standard colloquial sense of the word as opposed to the psychological sense of the word) about the act. After all, if I didn't live alone and had to interact with a real person during my paper-writing, I would have to deal with a real person who might not distract me when I wanted to be distracted. They might interrupt me right in the middle of a thought. And that might be good for me. Make me less self-centered about the sanctity of "my" time.

There is definitely something to be said for this angle. I would hate to "grow up" to be one of those curmudgeonly people whose life was built around things and people who didn't take me out of myself and my needs at times. As Thomas Lynch, poet and undertaker, writes about the culture's paradigm shift from caskets surrounded by family, friends, and co-religionists to golf bag-themed caskets surrounded by co-hobbyists: "we are...required, as [Robert Pogue Harrison] insists, to choose 'an allegiance--either to the posthuman, the virtual, and the synthetic, or to the earth, the real and the dead in their cosmic densities.'" There is something that seems wrong about abandoning human community for the TV.

But then, I can't believe that it's all gloom and doom for my movie-watching "company." After all, seeking company in the company of characters in a DVD is no worse than seeking it in books or any other form of story, or the "not real." Including the characters that occasionally find their home in my fiction-writer's (admittedly odd) brain and leak their way out onto paper. As Margaret Atwood writes in her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, "not real can tell us about real." Through story, through these odd unreal characters that jump into our brains from books and movies and TV shows, we can learn about who we are in relation to other very real people and things.

Children's writer Katherine Paterson, in an article called "Making Meaning," balances both of the aspects of this question--interaction on a "virtual" and a "real" level--nicely: "As a writer I can try to make meaning for...children through the words of a story, but I can't stop there, thinking that my task as meaning-maker is done. Nor, I dare say, can you. It is up to each of us not simply to write the words [or take in the story], but to be the word of hope, of faith, of love."

Although she was saying that her role as a writer should be balanced with the role of the in-person teacher/mentor/parent in children's lives, her point seems to be a valid one for the current discussion as well. Both the "not real"--or the virtual, or the symbolic--and the "real" are important, and if we live in either of them exclusively, we risk losing something in our lives. So I think I'll continue to watch the Lord of the Rings during paper-writing times, but I'll also continue to, from time to time, write in places where people can interrupt me.

1 comment:

Jodie Boyer said...

Hey Deb, I think this sounds too much like Deb Leiter from Calvin to not be. Although the division of Harper Collins threw me a bit. I am also studying in Canada and would love to hear from you. I have a blog of sorts as well at