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Original Essays | September 17, 2014 10 comments
My first novel, Love Me Back, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in... Continue »
Taming the Wilderness: Imagination, Tall Tales, and Why Anxious People Should Writeby Ingrid Law
Nervous people have some of the most potent imaginations around — how else could we think of all the bad things that might happen and dwell on them with such elaborate and disproportionate attention? But I've come to realize that storytelling can be a powerful antidote for the anxiety-prone. Just as that larger-than-life legend, Pecos Bill, subdued a giant rattlesnake and turned it into a lasso, we jittery, jumpy people can grab hold of our imaginations and put them to far better use.
Throughout history, story has been used to explain, record, and inform. It has served as a tool to guide, empower, entertain, frighten, or reassure. From the earliest cave paintings and oral traditions to present day international bestsellers and ebooks, story has persisted throughout time and across cultures. The lifespan of a story and its impact on both society and the individual is immeasurable and unpredictable.
The tall tale is just one example of a culturally based storytelling tradition. But what do tall tales and anxiety have in common? Both serve up hefty helpings of fiction based on real-life situations and real-world worries. Both use exaggeration and the imagination as their primary ingredients.
The traditional American tall tales — stories like those of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, Slue Foot Sue, and others — became popular at a time when settlers faced a hornets' nest of challenges in a brand new world of fears. Early America was an immense, untamed land filled with thick forests, towering mountains, scorching deserts, daunting blizzards, and established tribes of people ready to fight to protect their territories and their way of life. Anxiety on all fronts was surely as unbridled and bucking as the wild horses that roamed the landscape.
Early settlers found some relief from their fears in the invention of iconic, legendary characters for whom such a vast continent and its many hardships were easily conquered. Brimming with humorous similes and hard-working metaphors, stories of legendary cowboys, lumberjacks, railroad workers, sea captains, and farmers epitomized the triumph over nature and the will and determination of the early American spirit.
While these old stories may no longer reflect all of the cultural and environmental values we hold today, the narratives have most certainly permeated our makeup, giving us a kind of national exaggeration gene that has seen us through many hardships, and bestowed us with the ability to create whopping fish stories to fit practically any occasion.
During the Depression and Dust Bowl era in the last century, tall tales and exaggerations were relied upon once again as a way of dealing with the tribulations of the times. Such tales gave common ground to those who suffered through shared misfortune and privation, and provided a way of dealing with extreme adversity through storytelling. This was not done to simply make light of a bad situation, but as a way of grabbing hold of what could be controlled, by taming the inner wilderness of fear and desolation by exaggerating reality neatly into the realm of fantasy.
Kansas farmers told stories of having to pay their taxes in Texas after dust storms blew their farms down south. Birds flew backwards and fish wore goggles to keep the dust out of their eyes. And folks used crowbars to measure the wind — a bent crowbar meant the wind was manageable, but if the bar broke clean off, it was a good day to stay indoors. The exaggeration gene had kicked in again, giving the people in the 1930s a way to twist their anxieties into well-spun yarns rather than allow their fears to press them down further than they already felt.
Today people fight to protect open space and wilderness lands, and our continent has been neatly divided and ordered. But those of us with anxious natures carry a different kind of wilderness with us at all times. Our deserts and blizzards and dust storms are born from our thoughts and our fears, all made epic in proportion by the very same thing that makes a good story — our imaginations. We need Bunyanesque strength of will to tame this inner wilderness, to clear the log jams of all our imagined dangers. Fortunately, we have at our disposal the same tool as the generations who came before us: We can tell stories — and so I do.
When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he'd caused it.
From the very first sentence of Savvy, I set out to write a story about American magic without ever using the word "magic," turning instead to the voice of the tall-tale tradition, and to my own exaggeration gene.
Upon turning 13, each member of the extraordinary Beaumont family comes into their own larger-than-life talent — their own savvy. But these abilities are not the usual boy-wizard magic or comic book super powers; they are reflections — no, exaggerations — of the challenges life has to offer as we grow from children into adults. Relying heavily on my own love of all things grand and impossible, I wanted to create a new mythology for today's children, one steeped in Americana and infused with the spirit of triumph — not the triumph of conquering the world outside of us, rather, the accomplishment of taming our own inner wilderness as we learn to trust ourselves, trust in the talents we've been given, and learn who we are as individuals despite our fears.
There are still vast frontiers to explore inside each of us, and plenty of room for more tall tales. So if you count yourself among the anxious, the next time you find your imagination hurtling toward the raging waters of worst-case scenarios faster than a barrel going over the Niagara Falls, grab a pencil and start writing. All that imaginative energy has potential if you can grab hold, hang on, and turn that barrel around. It's all just fiction anyway, so instead of fussing and fretting over futile what-ifs, why not alter gravity, change the course of rivers, or ride upstream on the back of a giant fish? I guarantee you'll have more fun.
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Ingrid Law has sold shoes, worked in a bookstore, helped other people get jobs, and assembled boxes for frozen eggplant burgers. She and her 12-year-old daughter live in Boulder, Colorado, in a lovely old mobile home that they like to believe is a cross between a spaceship and a shoe box. They enjoy writing on its walls and painting on its ceiling, and have two harps, a flute, and a ukulele, as well as a fondness for muffins.