Essays Fiction 2009

Telling Tails

The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: they are boring, a consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer.

Image: Nick Craine

My sons, Timmy and Tad—both fans of Winnie the Pooh—have taken lately to wearing tails. At our local Wal-Mart, and occasionally at church, the boys sport lengths of clothesline dangling from their trousers. They prowl the neighborhood trailing an assortment of ribbons, coat hangers, telephone cords, fishing line, belts, blankets, drapery tassels, and electrical extension cords. People notice. Things have gotten out of hand. Alas, we have become a family of tails, and, though I’m embarrassed to make this confession, even my wife and I have been persuaded to spruce up our fashion acts. Meredith jogs in a tail. I write in a tail. Yesterday, in a most undignified moment, I answered the doorbell having forgotten the Slinky jiggling restlessly at my buttocks. Imagine the judgments taking shape in the eyes of the UPS man.

Our household seems caught up in a kind of reverse evolution, tumbling backward through the millennia, alighting in an age in which the ancestral tail was both common and quietly useful. Like our tree-dwelling relatives, the O’Brien tribe has grown comfortable with its tails. We groom them. We miss them at bath time. We view their absence in our fellow man with pity and suspicion.

Now, as I sit here with my coffee at the kitchen table, I find myself wondering if something about this tail business might smack of the unwholesome, even of the aberrant and fanatical.

Imagination, of course, is a precious human gift. Yet, even so, I worry about the future. I entertain visions of little Tad, who has just turned 3, awaiting his bride at the marriage altar with a large powdered tail quivering aloft. And I am not alone in such irrational fears. Meredith won’t admit to it, but over the past several weeks she has been stealing into the boys’ bedroom at night, secretly pulling back the sheets to check for the first hairy sproutings of the real McCoy.

The shadows of childhood can darken our adult lives—that much I know as a certainty—and what parent would not be concerned that present fantasy might somehow influence distant fact? Already the imaginary has embedded itself in the real world. At youth-league soccer games, young Timmy is impeded by the awkward mechanics of his “Tigger hop”—four strides and a bounce. Spectators gawk. Coaches squint at me. I feel the chill of a silent accusation: What kind of father are you?

I’ve tried, God knows, to reason with the boys. I’ve used guile and bribery and shameless deceit. (Santa Claus hates tails). Last night I tried again. “Pretending can be a good thing,” I told the boys at bedtime, “but sometimes it can get you in trouble. It can be dangerous.”

Tad had already drifted off, but Timmy looked up at me with suspicion. “Is this one of your silly stories?”

“Not silly at all,” I said, and then I launched into a hastily improvised tale about a little boy who couldn’t stop pretending—always talking to a make-believe dog, eating make-believe pancakes. After a while, I said, the little boy couldn’t separate what was real from what wasn’t. It landed him in all kinds of trouble.

“But I thought make-believe was supposed to be fun,” Timmy said.

“Yes, of course it is,” I told him, and then a crucial question occurred to me. “Do you know what pretending is?”

For what seemed a long while, I listened to the whir of a 5-year-old’s mind in motion. “Well, actually,” Timmy finally said, using his favorite (and only) four-syllable word, “actually I guess it’s like when you go away on trips. Sometimes I dream about you. I dream about how you’ll come home from the airport and bring me surprises and play with me. I get sad when you go away, and so I pretend you’re not gone. Is that bad?”

I told him no, it wasn’t bad.

“When you go away,” Timmy said, “sometimes I write your name in the sandbox. I pretend you’re pushing me on a swing or making funny faces at me.”

I nodded.

The whole issue of tails suddenly seemed pale and trivial. The thought struck me that I should begin cutting back on the travel. Fewer airports, more conversations like this one. I kissed the boys good night.

“What about your story?” Timmy said. “What happened to that little boy who couldn’t stop pretending?”

“Nothing bad,” I said. “He grew up.”

I left the bedroom and went off in search of Xanax.

This little anecdote is offered as both a prelude to, and an illustration of, my topic here: the centrality of imagination in enduring fiction. In general, the topic is born out of writing workshops, in which I’ve noticed, almost always to my alarm, that classroom discussion seems to revolve almost exclusively around issues of verisimilitude. Declarations such as these abound: I didn’t believe in that character. I need to know more about that character’s background. I can’t see that character’s face. I don’t understand why that character would behave so insipidly (or violently, or whatever).

These are legitimate questions. But for me, as a reader, the more dangerous problem with unsuccessful stories is usually much less complex: I am bored. And I would remain bored even if the story were packed with pages of detail aimed at establishing verisimilitude. I would believe in the story, perhaps, but I would still hate it. To provide background and physical description and all the rest is of course vital to fiction, but vital only insofar as such detail is in the service of a richly imagined story, rather than in the service of good botany or good philosophy or good geography.

Let’s say, for example, that a story is set in Nigeria. No matter how much detail is offered to help me see and smell and hear Nigeria, if the story itself does not surprise and delight and enchant me in some way, all of that detail is mere information, which better belongs in a travelogue or an encyclopedia entry. I might be wholly convinced of the setting, yet wholly sedated by the story. Or, said a different way: the research might be a resounding success but the drama a dismal failure.

The failure, almost always, is one of imagination.

In fiction workshops, we tend to focus on matters of verisimilitude largely because such issues are so much easier to talk about than the failure of imagination. And for the writer, of course, beefing up a character’s physical description is easier than envisioning a sequence of compelling and meaningful events in which that character is engaged. So we nibble at the margins, shying away from the central difficulty.

What if, for example, one were to tell a child a bedtime story that went something like this:

Batman weighed 188 pounds. His hair was black. His complexion was fair. Young Batman grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, where he spent an unhappy and decidedly disturbed childhood. His grandfather was well known in town as the man who had invented the machine that lays down lane stripes on highways all across America. Batman’s mother was an insomniac. She could sew pretty well. She loved a good pork chop. Batman’s father, by contrast, preferred seafood. The church Batman attended was made of limestone. His school was a brick structure. The family car was an Oldsmobile.

Well, I could pile on other such detail, for many pages, but my sons would eventually demand that something happen—an unusual and dramatic event. Pork chops and highway stripes are important to a child only insofar as they fit into the fabric of interesting action.

Presented by

Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien has written eight books, including The Things They Carried and the National Book Award–winning Going After Cacciato.

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