Last night my big sister and I went to see the movie 2012 (my daughter and I are in Phoenix this week visiting her, and I’m taking advantage of getting to go to the movies more often than I do at home). It was fun – very campy and over-the-top, not high film art or anything, but fun.
(WARNING: Potential spoilers follow …)
So it’s funny, the main character of this movie is a writer who’s separated from his wife and two kids. He’s had one book published with a small print run of 500 copies, but naturally, his writing indirectly saves hundreds of lives, because it inspires another character to make a heart-warming speech about how the self-serving government bigwigs ought to let more people onto these gigantic ships they’ve built to save humanity from the apolcalyptic floods.
And, conveniently, after this writer has proved what a big-hearted guy he is by rescuing his ex-wife and kids and her new boyfriend, and after he’s shown how mature and forgiving he is by admitting that his ex-wife’s new boyfriend isn’t so bad after all, the ex-wife’s new boyfriend just happens to get painfully ground up in a giant can opener-type contraption (whoops), and (surprise!) his ex-wife realizes that he, the writer dude, is the one she really wanted all along, even though it’s clear from the film that he was a terrible husband and spent most his time when they were together ignoring her and his kids so he could sit around and write.
This plot definitely sounds like some writer’s escapist fantasy, which isn’t to say I don’t sympathize with the guy, since of course I also like to sit around and write.
So then afterwards my sister and I were talking about how much of writing (the literary or creative kind) comes from escapism and how much of it comes from being driven to do it. Of course, every writer is different, but I find that with my own writing, I definitely go back and forth. I like to write about things that I enjoy thinking about (e.g., nice people, beautiful settings in nature). That kind of subject matter provides a great little mini-vacation from real life sometimes. It’s like with Westley in The Princess Bride when he’s getting tortured by the evil six-fingered count – when I’m stuck waiting in line at the post office, or changing the fourth poopy diaper of the day, or inching along in rush hour traffic, I can just go to my happy place and work on a story in my head.
But I also like taking on projects that are more ambitious and potentially painful, and not out of pure masochism either, but because there’s a certain drive there to construct things – to start with nothing and end up with something. It’s a creative urge that’s there regardless of how pleasant or painful the act of creation might be. It’s kind of a strange thing, sort of the opposite of entropy – a force that wants to impose new structure and order on the raw material of one’s thoughts and experiences, to push this new structure out of potentiality into actuality, to bring something into being.
And there’s a sense, too, in which this urge to make something is unrelated to how good the final product is. You might know from the outset that everyone will think it sucks, and yet you still want to do it. You might know from the outset that no one besides your mom will ever read it, and yet you still want to do it.
The escapist urge is logical and easy to understand. The creative urge is just plain weird. There’s something mysterious and miraculous about it. As with other alleged miracles, it’s entirely possible to doubt whether it’s even real and there aren’t more sordid explanations behind it, like that it’s some sort of escapism gone bent and twisted. But I think it’s for real.