Mind Altering Books

In college, I student taught a freshman seminar about imagination. I remember reading one batch of papers. The assignment had asked the students to write an imaginative story. Almost every student wrote about a superhero.

Although it made me wonder, I don’t think that meant they were unimaginative people, but it certainly meant something. The common experiences of that group (probably TV and video games) created pathways and triggers in their minds. It was like they had all uploaded the same imagination software package designed by Marvel. When you fed them that assignment, it bounced through the circuits in their brains and spit out “superhero.” It’s probably also why there were four Lilas in my daughter, Lila’s, pre-school class.

I think that’s why the power of a child’s imagination is compelling. At a young age, a child has almost no context to describe their experiences and very little language to do so. Marvel hasn’t gotten to them yet. At the same time, their experience of the world is just as vibrant. Many times, they are experiencing things for the first time: snow, puddle jumping, big dogs, you name it–to them it’s magical and new.

Oftentimes when my kids, who are still little, describe something, it takes me a minute to figure out what they’re talking about because they don’t use the preloaded language adults use. For instance: “I want the orange juice without feathers” means pulp-free. “The alarm clock in my toe is going off” means Daphne’s foot fell asleep. “Fanny lost her nose” means there’s an avocado pit in the compost that looks just like the dog’s nose. It’s the kind of honest, cliche free communication that writers strive for.

I don’t think adults are less creative, but our creative pathways tend to harden, especially if we don’t force ourselves to think out of the box. We turn into computers. If you insert the term “imagination,” the computer spits out “superhero.” If you insert “unconventional thinking,” it translates, “out of the box.”

When I had my first baby, I went through a creative renaissance. It was partially born of necessity–I wanted some new things and didn’t have extra money, but it wasn’t just that. I knew that each of us viewed the world from a unique perspective, but I always thought bigger, as in how my status as a middle class white chick influenced my views of socio-political issues. Spending time with a toddler, showed me that my perspective affected how I thought of everything, even something as simple as a glass of orange juice. My baby made the world new for me again.

The beauty of art often lies in perspective. As writers, we tell the same story over and over again, but everyone tells it slightly differently. Oftentimes, I think really successful writers (or doctors, painters, whoever), use a shift in perspective to reveal something true that can’t be seen without exploiting a new angle. I’m sort of kicking myself for saying this because now I have to think of an example… I’m going to say: Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn did a great job of playing with perspective in that book. It didn’t betray an injustice or anything, but it was mind altering.

Can you think of books that do this?


13 thoughts on “Mind Altering Books”

  1. I love so much about this post! It was–and still is–fascinating watching my daughter learn to articulate and describe things. She wore noodle strap shirts for the longest time, and I couldn’t bear to correct her. We understood. We made up great bedtime stories together, and her perspective was fascinating. Now, she’s a teenager. Still fascinating, but in a new way. She definitely helps to feed my imagination! Children are so flexible and unhindered in their thinking. As an adult, I struggle with that on a daily basis. It takes a conscious act for me to shake off the limits I’ve put around myself, and really be creative. I think that’s why I love to write so much; writing comes with permission to work without boundaries.

    I haven’t read Gone Girl (I’ve heard too many opposite opinions, and I need to wait a bit longer), but I understand the reference. I’d say that Madeline L’Engle did this well, also Piers Anthony in many of his works. I think Agatha Christie did this well in a few of her novels (all of them were wonderful). But, you make a lovely point about the importance of perspective. Great post!


  2. Great post here—and very much in agreement. Just finished Gone Girl myself finally (am I the last one to read it?) and agree that it handles those shifting perspectives well and succeeds too in sharp, unexpected language there at the line level too.


  3. Ha, you are probably the last to read Gone Girl, Art.

    Peg, those are exactly the books I was trying to think of! Madeline L’Engle definitely did that! Come to think of it, I think Dr. Seuss is a master of it. I was trying to think of genre authors. I’m sure there are some. My brain crapped out on me by the end of the post. I love noodle strap dress, too. So cute. 🙂


  4. My granddaughter was just visiting, and she asked me to tell her a story about a bad dinosaur and a good wolf (still working on it).

    As for mind-altering books, my favorite so far is Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Imagine a library of lost books!


  5. This is a beautiful post! Yes. I love “without feathers.” (My kids still ask what the “speed lemon” is when we are in the car.)

    Gail Carriger’s books have this quality for me, with all the steampunk gadgets and the amazing elements of plot and character. I know I’m going into a different world when I open one of her books up. Ooh, and Jasper Fforde too.


  6. Great post. I love the “without feathers” too. When my youngest was little, she came running in one day with a branch and said, “Look, Mom, the pussy toes are in bloom!” As for Gone Girl, I liked everything until the end. Same with Girl on a Train. Great until the end. Speaking of which, Girl on a Train did a really good job of exposing alcoholic self-talk.


  7. Great post. Kids always do have a unique perspective because the world hasn’t barged in and told them “this is the way it should be” yet.

    Art, I still haven’t read GONE GIRL, so you are not the last one. Keenan, I think you hit on why I’m afraid to read it. I’ve heard that assessment so many times and I have to be in the right mood for that kind of book.

    Dr. Seuss does great things with perspective. Every successful writer should have a Dr. Seuss book handy to “shake things up” when the imagination goes stale.


  8. This is an absolutely outstanding post!

    I admire the way Stephen King can take an absolutely routine thing or event and infuse it with something else—usually sinister. And JK Rowling built a world where a cat is always a cat.

    By the way, I haven’t read Gone Girl either. I’m sort of unlikely to given all the books I have piled around (and in my Kindle) I really, really want to read.


  9. Your kids’ adorable descriptions remind me of a talk I attended by a 27 yr old autistic man. He and his mother described how difficult it is for him to “get” some of subtle meanings of language. He took everything literally. Together they created a set of greeting cards with cartoons to show and tell. For example, one has a woman sitting in a chair with geese on her arm. Inside, the message is, “your news gave me goose bumps.” There are many forms of imagination, indeed.

    Peg, I got a copy of the Gone Girl audiobook at a Bouchercon. Interesting listening in the car while doing errands. Adds to the movie (I listened to the book first).


  10. Love this post, Sam! What a fascinating experience in your seminar. Gone Girl is a great example! Other books that come to mind are Life of Pi and Code Name Verity–the shifts in perspective totally changed both those stories. It seems like it’s tougher in mystery because the author must be fair to the reader, but there are definitely some authors that have pulled it off, like the great Agatha Christie 🙂


  11. What a fantastic post! Orange juice without feathers. I love it, and I’m adopting it from now on. The great books for me? Oh so many–Strange in a Strange Land immediately came to mind, along with the quote, “I am only an egg.” What a perfect perspective on the world. Then there’s The Little Prince and The Desiderada, a Wrinkle in Time of course. I agree with Kate, that is it tougher to pull these shifts off in a mystery and that Christie is the master (mistress?) of the technique, but then, so is Sayers.

    So much food for thought in this post. Excellent!


  12. Kate, you are so right. I think that’s exactly why it’s hard to pull this off in mystery.

    Peg, I love your description of JK Rowling’s work! You are so right. The axis of that universe is definitely the cat.


  13. “It’s probably also why there were four Lilas in my daughter, Lila’s, pre-school class.” That made me LOL! As far as perspective goes, I’ve always been fascinated with Rashomon stories, the ones that tell the same event from all the witnesses POVs. As God is my witness, I WILL write one some day! *shakes fist at sky*


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