Making Believe

I’m so tired.

But I did it: I turned in a revised version of the third chapter. It’s about a hundred pages. There’s still going to be work to do over the summer, of course. But this means I’ve completed the global revisions. The rest of the revisions will be local, more detailed. It means I have an argument with a trajectory, which is the hard part.

Did I mention how tired I am?

Here are my deadlines as of today:

April 15: short story due (part of the project I can’t talk about yet).
April 28: Folkroots column due. This may be the Narnia column, I’m not sure.
May 1: revised first chapter of the dissertation due, but it’s already almost done.

So there is still a lot of work ahead of me, but it’s not going to be quite as difficult (I hope) as the last two weeks have been.

And since I’m announcing deadlines, I should also announce some publications:

My Folkroots column on vampires will be in the April Realms of Fantasy, and will be online on the Realms of Fantasy website.

My story “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow” is being reprinted in Kafkaesque, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly. Take a look at the table of contents! Who thought that one day I would be in a book with Jorge Luis Borges, Terry Bisson, Carol Emshwiller, Jeffrey Ford, Jonathan Lethem, Tamar Yellin, and all the other incredible writers in this anthology?

And finally, a poem of mine, “Binnorie,” is going to be in the new Mythic Delirium.

But what I wanted to write today was a continuation of my blog post on David Foster Wallace. I don’t know if I can express these thoughts well, since it’s my first time putting them down, and as I said, I’m incredibly tired. But I’ll try.

On Friday, I saw that a student of mine was carrying a wand from the Harry Potter movie. When she saw that I was looking at it, she told me she was playing Harry Potter Assassin, which is a variation on Assassin where you kill the other person with a wand and a spoken spell. She told me that she was also on the Quidditch team. (I always have students who are on the Quidditch team in my class.) So, while she was going through her day, taking classes, doing her homework, she was also living in an imaginary world in which she was trying to “kill” or in danger of being “killed.” She was making believe.

This reminded me of a game I play with a friend of mine. We text each other throughout the day, and when we are particularly bored, we make believe that we are a team of assassins. We call each other by our last names, but in order to preserve his secret identity, I will call him Mr. Smith. Our conversations go something like this:

Me: Blah. Blah blah blah.

Smith: Laughing! Dissertation? I’m at work. (Describes a male customer.)

Me: Dissertation. Be careful, Smith. He may be Mr. Z in disguise.

(I will interrupt this dialog for a brief infodump: Mr. Z is our arch-nemesis. We barely escaped the last time he tried to feed us to the sharks. He seems to have a thing for sharks.)

Smith: Mr. Z would never make it that easy on us.

Me: See, you’re not anticipating it. That’s when he gets you!

Smith: Aaah! He’s too clever for me! That’s why I have you, Goss. I’m the brawn of the outfit.

Me: He could be disguised as anything. The man’s wife, a potted plant. Just be careful, is all I’m saying. If he does you in, who’s going to meet me in Antigua with Chanel No. 5 and a rocket launcher?

Me: (After thinking for a moment.) Hey! I’m also the brawn of the outfit. I’m small but deadly.

You see, we are also making believe.

According to the New York Times review, “Happiness, Wallace suggests in a Kierkegaardian note at the end of this deeply sad, deeply philosophical book, is the ability to pay attention, to live in the present moment, to find ‘second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.’” Well, that’s not at all what we’re doing, is it? We’re not paying attention to the present moment because we’re finding that moment boring. Therefore, we are changing it, making a game out of it. Making it exciting.

Is that wrong? You could call what we’re doing escapism. But here’s what I think: reality is a collaboration anyway, between what is there and our perception of it. Even when we pay attention, we do not perceive reality unmediated. We see it through biological and psychological filters. So do dogs, so do birds. They also see what is there, but differently. I don’t think we are meant to perceive reality unmediated, and creating a story about it is one way to mediate it. (Perhaps a particularly human way, I don’t know. Dogs and birds may have their own stories.) We create stories easily, automatically: we are made to tell them. We are made to see a flock of ravens and think of Raven. We automatically mythologize the world. By which I mean that we fill it with meaning, instinctively. We live by metaphor.

(This can lead us into error, but so can believing that we are capable of perceiving reality unmediated, that what we see is reality rather than our perception of it.)

This reminds me of the way a story is a collaboration. The reader reads the words on the page, fills them with his or her imagination, makes them live. And that’s how the story happens.

So I guess I would say, in answer to Wallace’s statement, that happiness is the ability to create satisfying stories about reality. To find the stories that fulfill you, that allow you to achieve what you desire. That fill you with joy. Because reality is, to a certain extent, our perception of it. Achieving what you desire may also involve altering reality itself, changing your circumstance. But I’ve found that I can only change my reality after I tell myself the right story about it, after I tell myself that I am the sort of person who can make that change. That’s a story I started telling myself about a year ago, that I was the sort of person who could finish a PhD, who could become a professional writer. I’m not, obviously, going to become an assassin. I do know the difference between telling stories that can come true and amusing anecdotes. But I am a person who can, when she is bored, text about flying to Antigua in the private plane, tangoing the night away at a beachside bar, and in the morning confronting the minions of Mr. Z. (What does Mr. Z look like? Even we don’t know. He will get us someday, unless we get him first. Right, Smith?)

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4 Responses to Making Believe

  1. Grey Walker says:

    “[H]appiness is the ability to create satisfying stories about reality.”

    There it is. Nice!

  2. Douglas Cohen says:

    Oooo, congrats on getting that monkey (or the bulk of it) off your back. Seems like you’ve been wrestling with it forever.

    And the Narnia column! Awesome if it happens this time. I remember talking to you about this one a while back. If it’s something else, I’m sure it will be just as interesting.

    Get some real sleep starting on May 2nd!

  3. "Smith" says:

    We’ll get him, Goss. He doesn’t know about the surprise we’ll have waiting for him at the underwater soiree being thrown by Mr. and Mrs. Brindlefoot, after all. (Oh hey — I hope he doesn’t read this blog!)

  4. Can’t wait to read your Folkroots on vampires. Look at ALL THAT WORK! Hooray! Rest when you can.

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