The power of imagination
Lessons from turtles, pirates, fathers and sons
By Michael Boover
Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, did not want to settle for mere existence. By seeing the extraordinary in an ordinary, simple life, he came across a pathway to new discoveries: the power of imagination.
At a writers workshop that I attended, participants were invited to explore being imaginative together. After a long day focused on the craft of writing, we moved into imaginative discovery with a toss of the dice. These were no ordinary dice!
They had words etched on them. Every roll of the dice presented a word to stir each participant’s imagination. The word led to a phrase, and the phrases led to imaginative stories that were then collected like beads on a string. Turtles escaped from cooks with turtle soup recipes with the help of sympathetic animal rescuers. A sheep was grazing very happily on a green hillside. Captured sea pirates were transported from their ship on the high seas to the Egyptian pyramids by plane-flying captors. A wild assortment of characters and images made their way into the ever-growing and evolving story.
In many ways, real life is very much like our experiment. Each distinct life’s story adds to the larger and blesses it. It seems we embellish so as to provide some sparkle to the gray and monotonous in our days. Imagination adds poetic yeast to the dough of prose. Life is, after all, a grand composition of disparate elements that we hope will gracefully come together like the pieces of a puzzle. We long for a unified narrative that makes more sense of things as they are or that intuits how things could be different if we but change.
In 2003, a beautiful film was released based on a novel by Daniel Wallace. The book and film, both titled Big Fish, are wondrous celebrations of what I call amplified narrative. In the film adaptation, while dealing with the novel’s serious themes, director Tim Burton blurs the lines between reality and fantasy and gives exaggeration a good name. His film suggests that exaggeration may well serve the real in unusual but nonetheless appropriate ways.
Big Fish is the story of Edward Bloom, a man who has told stories all his life and is now preparing to die.
Essential for himself, Edward told many stories about his own life’s adventure. Sadly, they were too outlandishly and repeatedly told so as to be fully welcomed by his young listener son, William. Edward’s stories produced a profound skepticism in William about the veracity of his father’s life lessons. William now comes home as an adult to his dying father’s bedside as befuddled in hearing these stories told once again as he was in his youth. Because his father’s truth-telling had grown so suspect, there is an observable hardness and distance in William, a reaction to his father’s oratorical excesses. Yet for Edward, it is precisely his “over the top” sounding stories that best convey the mystery that lights up and colors life when one is in love with people and places. It is this mysterious quality that Edward still longs to share with his now grown up, story-wary son.
William is encouraged to seek a better rapport with his estranged dad by his pregnant and less cynical young wife who has accompanied him home, and when he makes an effort, the film turns into an account of William’s gradual transformation from bewildered and angry son to a more knowing and budding adventurer himself. William decides to set out on a daring journey of inquiry to uncover his father’s actual past by retracing some of his father’s steps as told in his tall tales. In so doing, he hopes to confirm his suspicions that his dad is but a big fibber, but surprisingly he discovers that his storytelling indeed has roots in the factual. In reality, Edward’s life was peopled by the colorful personages he was always talking about who helped him get by and whom he helped get by in a supplying of mutually needed kindnesses. The film suggests that we all need such caring assistance from each other so that we can successfully travel our individual yet shared pathways home.
Big Fish has something of a classic conversion story about it. As William comes to recognize that there is more truth hidden in the depths of his father’s imagination than he assumed, he is simultaneously enlightened as to the actual nature and purpose of his father’s storytelling. It is when William discovers the extraordinary in the ordinary that a new day dawns for this father and son. Big Fish is a story of reconciliation that has the capacity to spur a greatly needed discovery in us all, or at least an occasion to “think twice” before we too easily dismiss the imaginative as having little relevance for our critically-minded age.
There are, of course, dangers in risking an overly imaginative approach to reality, and these must not be ignored. But that said, the dreamers among us have a compelling truth to share and lesson to teach — that there are gifts to be had in exercising our imaginations, glories to be had in dreaming, delight to be taken in the fact that there is more than a surface life to be lived.
The many storytelling traditions emanating from a variety of distinctive spiritual sources — Native American to Biblical — engage us at very deep levels and are full of deep wisdom that offer to edify and enrich those who would listen and learn. Imagine yourself as invited to a conversion experience the likes of William’s. Where would such an invitation take you or me? With openness to the inquisitive and the imaginative, such a turning as was had by William might also be ours. If we dare to be similarly adventurous, we may find mighty big fish tugging on our lines that don’t have to get away and that most significantly, perhaps, desire to be caught by us!
Michael Boover, connected to the Catholic
Worker Movement since the early 1970's,
lives and works at Annunciation House of Worcester.
He and his wife Diane have four adult children.