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I’ll Bet You Say That To All The Boys

November 24, 2011

Sorry, don’t mean anything by the title. I’m listening to the original Bat Out of Hell album, and that line always amuses me. Really, I just like the intro to the title track with the flying pianos and guitars sounding like a fugue. Something about barely contained chaos always grabs my attention, so long as I can actually make out all of the parts. Add too much volume or too much noise and it starts to lose my attention, too.

I suppose that should be the topic for today: something I like to call harmonic dissonance. Don’t worry, I won’t make this another musical discussion. What I mean is that bit of extreme unpleasantness that resolves pleasantly and in timely fashion. Sort of like when you stroke a cat’s fur the wrong way, only to stroke it back into place and increase the volume of the purr. My agent has a cat she likes to snuggle and rub roughly, and though it would never occur to me that he would enjoy being agent-handled like that, nevertheless, he purrs like a motorboat.

You’re thinking, what does this have to do with anything? Well, in a funny sort of way, it has a lot to do with what we most enjoy about fiction, but in some of our lives, we crave a certain amount of harmonic dissonance. There’s a slight difference between what I’m talking about and what most of us dread, which is unbridled chaos. No one wants to look down the tracks to see the runaway train heading for a wall, but there are times in our lives when we enjoy the feeling of being on the runaway train, so long as it stays on the tracks. Extreme sport fanatics probably thrive on this feeling, but the main thing is, we all crave it to one degree or another, whether we like to think so or not. Even the most staid of us occasionally needs to do something relatively reckless; throw away the umbrella and run wild through the field in a rain storm, just to feel alive, the way we did—or wanted to—when we were children.

Quite a few of us develop such a taste for the dissonant notes in our lives that we actively reject anything that sounds too sweet. We wreck everything around us and wallow in the chaos because it’s the only thing that we trust, the only thing that we believe is real. The rest is just polite fiction.

And if there’s one thing most folks* don’t really enjoy in this day and age, it’s polite fiction.

I probably don’t need to explain to you how this is important in fiction writing. Most people will tell you that stories have to have something serious and overwhelming nearly happen for fiction to be interesting and rewarding. We experience catharsis seeing our hero(ine) save the day, whether it’s saving a drowning child, rescuing a heroic dog, avoiding financial disaster or saving the universe from chronic hysteresis.

The point is, we all thrive on a little adversity. It’s actually built into our genetic makeup. It’s how we evolved as a species (or, if you subscribe to ‘Intelligent Design’, it’s how the Maker made us to deal with the challenges of stewarding the Earth). We set challenges for us in our everyday lives, and some of us set more challenges for ourselves than we can practically meet in the time alloted. We think so little about the ramifications of this behaviour, and yet it’s enshrined in several of our greatest cultures. Even pacifists believe in peaceable confrontation when the establishment is failing to find peaceful solutions to the world’s problems.

We also have moments when we wish or pray for just five minutes of peace and quiet. Everyone needs to get to the point in the process where they can breathe a sigh of relief. We crave it even more than we crave the excitement—’like the glow of the metal on the edge of a knife’—but you can’t really have one without the other, at least, not without experiencing extreme discomfort. I often fear that what leads men and women to suicide is too-long sustained dissonance without adequate release. We all need that release, and if we can’t achieve it in our own lives, we can at least find an amped up version of it in the arms of impolite fiction.

Okay, Meatloaf has moved on to Bat Out of Hell II, which I like, but not quite as much as the first, so I’m gonna go hop in the shower. There’s work to be done today. Keep cool, and remember, if you can’t seem to shift the chaos in your life, maybe what you need is some impolite fiction or some harmonic dissonance, just to blow out the jams and remind yourself what life feels like.

Thanks for reading.


* who aren’t trying a little too hard to manifest polite fiction in their daily lives, that is.

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