Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Realm of the Possible

with 6 comments

So, I’ve been thinking about this thing of my needing fiction to present me with a possible, actual existing world, and not one that is entirely of the imagination.

And it occurs to me that this is what I demand of almost everything, and not just of fiction.

One of the things I used to like to do quite a lot back in the early nineties was to look at house plan magazines.

There are some house plan magazines that are just catalogues of stock plans available for sale, but the ones I liked were full-color stories of actual built houses, with all the pictures and articles about how the house was built.

In these magazines, some of the houses came with plans that were for sale so that you could build your own versions, and some of them were not.

And I was never interested in the stories about houses whose plans were not for sale.

If I couldn’t actually purchase the plan and build the house, I just wasn’t interested in reading about it.

This would not be very odd, except for this:  I had no intention of building a house.


I was not going to take one of these plans and build something from it. 


I’d watch my father build three houses over the course of my growing up, and I’d been myself involved in the building of just one, and every single one of those experiences was just plain awful.

If I ever decide to move from where I am and go off to another place, I will buy an already built house, or I will rent something.  But I will not build it myself.

And yet, I really do have no interest in the stories of houses whose plans are not for sale.  If I really have no possibility of ever building it, everything inside me rebels against the idea of fantasizing about it.

Looking into all this, part of me thinks that it may have to do with the absolute revulsion I felt, as a child, at the idea of “false hope.” 

False hope always seemed to me to be the most grindingly humiliating of all occupations, a situation in which you not only made yourself ridiculous, but made yourself ridiculous in the worst possible way.

You opened yourself to justified contempt and ridicule.  If you were mooning after something you could have no hope of bringing to realization, then not only would people laugh at you, they would have the right to laugh at you.

Thinking it over, though, I’m not sure this is the reason.  I am sure that this is the way my mind operates. 

I think I am more than a little afraid of compltely unrealistic daydreaming. 

Part of me says that there are a lot of people out there who never do anything because they’re too busy getting lost in futile fantasies of things that could never happen, on any level at all.

I can fantasize my way through A Moveable Feast because although I can’t go to Hemingway’s Paris, I can go to Paris–and I did, more than once.  I even lived there for nearly a year, and had my morning tea at the Cafe Deux Maggots, where Hemingway spent the afternoons writing short stories.

I have, in fact, managed to do most of what I dreamed of doing when I was reading books–lived in Paris, lived in London, lived in Greece, to to Asia, be a writer in New York, publish my novels.

But I cannot bring myself to imagine myself doing things that are not possible for me to do.

And that holds true in things other than fiction.

Written by janeh

July 31st, 2012 at 9:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Realm of the Possible'

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  1. Verrrry interesting.

    Makes me want to poke it with a stick, or explore the limits or something. ;)

    How about things you used to be able to do, but cannot anymore? Still fodder for fantasy? Once, you gave birth to two kids and I bore one. Now, we’re probably past the freshness date on our eggs (I know I am). Can you still fantasize about being a new parent?

    What about physical activities that age is making impossible? Once I could have run (or swum) miles. Now it’s not possible. But it doesn’t prevent me from reading about, and even fantasizing/empathizing with people who can.

    Rationally, any single fictional character is no more “real” than any other. Just because a woman from Des Moines named “Shirley” probably actually exists doesn’t make her character in a book any more or less intrinsically real than a girl living in the Land of Oz, or on the moon.

    To be consistent, then, with your need for “reality” you should reject fairy tales, or Alice in Wonderland, or the Wizard of Oz. Do you?

    What about fantasies set in the “real” world? Does any supernatural element make you reject it, even though it may be about Shirley from Des Moines?

    And as for “false hope” isn’t that another name for imagination? Until someone can imagine something that never existed before, they cannot make it happen. If you only hope for the possible, you restrict innovation, invention, and exploration.

    My husband is working with three separate individuals who are incarcerated and who he believes have been falsely convicted. (I do too, the evidence is pretty convincing). One is in for life without parole, and I have to say, we are completely familiar with managing hope, with defining and avoiding the false from the real. Hoping while being ready to be disappointed at any moment is a real bite, but it has to be done, because life with hope is livable, even under dreadful conditions. Without it, conditions can drive you mad.

    I won’t even go into the hope situation with the guy who just got his execution date set for November.

    Sounds to me like at some point you were mocked, or saw someone else being mocked, for “unrealistic expectations” and thought that being the subject of such mockery was the worst, most humiliating thing that could happen.

    For me, the mockery was about the size of my ass. Made me feel fat when I wasn’t. End result was that when I did start gaining weight, I felt like it was normal, not something i had to do something about.

    Childhood mockery is a powerful force on all of us. If only we could transcend those messages….


    31 Jul 12 at 12:15 pm

  2. Fair enough. It’s not the way my mind operates (although false hope can be quite damaging, and not only because people might mock you), but there’s no particular reason your imagination should work the same as mine, and every reason it shouldn’t, given that we’re different people.

    I don’t think I’ve ever wondered why I like more exotic fuel to fire my imagination. I think that partly it’s because I very rarely encountered books about the kind of life I had as a child, and the few books I encountered set anywhere near my part of the world were obviously, even to my uncritical eye, the inventions of someone who had done no research. I don’t like things that are supposed to be real and get it wrong. I particularly dislike that type of book that’s not really a biography and not really fiction. They were popular a while back – maybe still are – and there was a much admired volume about an early local politician…it drove me crazy. I wanted to know which bits the author had made up and which bits were real. I can put up with historical novels in which real people appear. I sometimes enjoy a biography. But I like to know which is which.


    31 Jul 12 at 2:23 pm

  3. There are just individual differences in imagination.

    I have no creative ability whatsoever, but I can willingly suspend disbelief when reading or watching a movie. As long as the characters are believable, that is. Screw up the psychology of how someone acts and I’m out of there.

    Cathy F


    31 Jul 12 at 4:05 pm

  4. Hmmm. Later on, I’d like to do a compare and contrast between prudent ways of securing a domicile and prudent ways of ordering a society.

    House plans. I’ve got a footlocker full of plans and clippings myself. I’ll probably never build now, but I’m not ready to throw out the papers, either. But it does include rooms and notes on materials, too: not just floor plans. If you know what you want, you can get a plan. That’s what architects are for. (Those plans for sale won’t be built, either. Someone will want a mirror image of the floor plan, an attached garage, or to move the light switch.)

    As far as building goes, MR BLANDING BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE was a novel, not a statistical survey. My parents built two houses from plans in new housing tracts and my mother’s parents took a sketch to an architect and had plans drawn and their retirement home built to order. There were problems, of course, but no worse than I’ve had buying existing houses–or renting.

    I never met one of those people one finds in fiction who wastes his life daydreaming. Mind you, I can find you plenty of people who were off having fun when they ought to have been working or studying–including me, sometimes–but that‘s not quite the same thing. Time spent in Rivendell is not, that I can see, differently spent that time in Barsetshire, watching Sherlock Holmes or listening to Beethoven. It’s been fun, and the dishes still aren’t washed.

    Now I have met a number of people who’ve demanded the impossible–good “practical” men, most of them–and many who have gone down to defeat and disaster under those famous mottoes “This Is How We’ve Always Done It” and “I Never Saw It Done That Way.” As a historian, I can name a number of armies and several countries buried obedient to a law that went “Don’t Take Any Chances.” The critical word, I think, is not “daydreaming” but “unrealistic” and that’s not an easy thing to define.

    I’m a conservative, not a reactionary. Everything we have chimpanzees do not we have because someone said “I’ve never seen this done, but I think it ought to work.” You can dream about visiting Paris or New York because other people dreamt of cities which didn’t exist and built them, or saw cities of lights and wide boulevards where reality was nothing but dirt and alleys and made that come to pass. I’ll not live to see Pell Station gleaming against the stars, or Mars terraformed, or even Luna City–but those are the dreams that take us forward, and I don’t think I’ll swap them out for career plans just yet, think you.


    31 Jul 12 at 7:44 pm

  5. Getting tired. Let me summarize: Setting house plans aside, entertainment is entertainment. I can’t see a qualitative difference between spending an evening in Victorian London and spending it in Valkis or Barakesh. As a guide for determining what is or is not possible, I would regard using ANY novel as the height of imprudence.

    “Impractical daydreaming” if it’s not just a slam at certain kinds of entertainment, depends very much on what turns out to be practical. Being very hard-headed and realistic can sometimes turn out not to be at all prudent. Most of the dreamers will be wrong. But some of them will most certainly be right.


    31 Jul 12 at 8:08 pm

  6. I have mixed feelings. I have no trouble with a world of imagination in fiction – right now I’m on an “alternate history” kick.

    But in real life, I am hard headed. I don’t believe “we will increase spending and cut taxes” or “we can solve all our problems by taxing the rich” or “the world will end if Party X wins control of the government”.

    Perhaps I’m too hard headed. I didn’t buy stock in Microsoft or Apple when they started!


    31 Jul 12 at 8:37 pm

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