Bring Them Up

Plotting Imaginative Coordinates

On the Making of a Fully Ready Non-Fiction Rumpus

Here are the notes from my talk at the 2024 Raggant Fiction Festival. If you’d prefer to watch, here’s a link to the video.

Magic Words

There is a two-word combo that I have not been able to spin out of my mental orbit for at least nine years, a verbal pairing that has affected my reading, my teaching, my recommendations, and my vision. They’ve almost been magic words, making something that didn’t exist before.

I value those who demonstrate that good reading, including good fiction, shapes our loves and loyalties. We learn to react the right way, who to root for and who to run away from. Yes(!) to stories that deepen and direct our affections. And, also, stories expand our imaginative coordinates. They push our mental boundaries of what was possible, and in so doing expand our world-building ideas.

Coordinates are a way to find where you’re at, or locate a place you plan to travel to, or even describe the length and breadth of the area considered. Coordinates belong on maps, X and Y, and sometimes a Z. The word “ordinate” comes from the idea of arranging or setting in order, and the “co” means that it involves at least two components working together. To plot coordinates is to set a course, which works not only when navigating a trip but also when writing a story.

Plotting imaginative coordinates in this respect isn’t figuring out how Mr. Rogers’ trolly gets to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, but imagining that there could be different, even better, places that would be good to go than we previously thought.

I first read the phrase “imaginative coordinates” in Michael Ward’s book, Planet Narnia. He also partners “imaginative” with:

  • imaginative vision
  • imaginative palate
  • imaginative outlook
  • imaginative pleasure
  • imaginative access
  • imaginative difficulties
  • imaginative resting-place
  • imaginative point-of-view
  • imaginative engagement
  • and imaginative form

Imaginative here doesn’t mean imaginary, as if fake, but rather using one’s creative efforts to see an image not seen before.

Beyond the Page

This is lifeblood for world-building. The Festival’s title/focus this year includes: “reading and writing as world-builders.” Reading requires imagination to picture the world the writer describes. This is one point for books over movies, as movies leave little to your imagination. You’re still dependent on someone else’s imaginative effort since they’ve built the world so you don’t have to. And writing obviously requires imagination to see a story to tell.

But imaginative sub-creating as God’s image-bearers — as Tolkien called it — is not only good for fiction. These imaginative capacities are crucial for non-fiction world-building.

If you need someone to give you a list of everything you need to do, fine, but you won’t be better than a robot. Robots can follow instructions, and with less pouting. As I’m talking about imagination, I’m talking about going from good stories to better cities, from plot twists to new products and better businesses. My talk is sort of a thank-you letter to fiction for helping me go from good fiction to better non-fiction.

Ready Raggants

I’ve affectionately called this year at ECS “The Year of the Raggant.” This event, after all, is the “Raggant Fiction Festival.” The biggest problem is that there is no such thing as a raggant. Or is there? Well, turns out, raggants not only exist in the fictional stories of the 100 Cupboards series, the raggants have become a select group of flesh-and-blood students (who pay non-fiction tuition dollars). That is so real that the author added a plural noun for a group of raggants: many raggants are a rumpus.

This year I’ve also been thinking about a word at the beginning of James 1, the Scripture about trials going to work on us, making us something. They test our faith toward our character arc of becoming “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Perfect is related to telos, meaning the end it was made for, and complete is holokleros, sometimes translated as sound or whole. But one dictionary defined it as: “ready to meet all expectations.”

Trials push us beyond what we thought our faith could survive, they expand our imaginative coordinates of perfection and joy.

So how can we make a fully ready, non-fiction rumpus? That’s a twist on our school’s mission, that the next generation carry and advance Christ-honoring culture. How do we prepare the rumpus when we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, what exact challenges are coming in the next chapter, for when there is no exact script to follow?

Off the Edge

Before I give some actual points, I saw an interaction on my Twitter timeline a couple weeks ago that resonates with me. One guy asked: “What work of fiction changed your worldview the most?” Another guy, a guy who loves the Lord and loves the truth, said: “None. No work of fiction should ever change our worldview. As a Christian, my worldview is shaped by Scripture alone.” And, you know, here’s two thoughts about that.

First, okay, yeah, if you had to choose, the Bible OR Narnia, you know what to do. But remember how Nathan told David a made-up story to show David his own sin? Remember the made-up story about the prodigal son that Jesus told to show the Jews their rebellion? Each of those is a “work of fiction” that God inspired for sake of producing In-Real-Life change.

Second, maybe we could get hung up on the word “changed.” Okay, yeah, but there are ways that non-fiction explanations change the facts to distort, shape to cover, shape to deceive, and ways that fiction reveals higher or deeper or broader truths.

And again, fiction plots our imaginative coordinates further out on the page, maybe even off the edge of the map. We don’t advance without imagination, and so till we have fiction we won’t complete the mission.

A Trifecta of Stuck

Three characters won’t advance, at least not well. This is not to say that only perfect characters make progress. I really enjoyed following both Cora (in The Winter King) and Lio (in The Sinking City), and Cora in particular who kept choosing wrong things, not by accident, not due to naivety. They both had flaws, and yet they both went forward. But there are three traits that cannot see beyond their plight (not plot), and all three traits are temptations for all of us.

Victims Aren’t Ready to Advance

By victim I don’t mean someone who has something bad happen to him. Why would you read something where nothing bad happens; no conflict equals no concern. By victim I mean the slave to how the other people, and the circumstances, keep him from happiness, success, glory. If it is always someone else’s fault, if you can’t imagine that there’s something you can do to make things better, you will not advance.

Frodo was not just short, he was weak, and he was greatly tempted and greatly tired and greatly whining about it. And yet, for as much Elijah Wood’s sulky face is sadly burned into my mind, Frodo was not stuck because he believed enough in his calling/responsibility to leave the Shire.

I would summarize Till We Have Faces as Orual’s turn from victimhood. She did quite a lot for much of the story while convinced that she was the victim. But this is Lewis’ imaginative power providing a fictional mirror for us, and we are the ugly ones. Telling us the story through Orual’s perspective shows us that victims often claim their virtue, but victims are not more happy but angry as they claim their virtue.

Again, bad things happen, brutal things happen, unfair things happen, and all of that happens to characters completely out of their control. But is that all they can see?

“the thinking processes that lead one to assume that one’s life situation is in extremis are partially determined by the breadth of one’s horizons at the time—which, of course, correlates with one’s imaginative capacity and sense of adventure.” (A Failure of Nerve, Location 2952)

Victims are stuck without their imaginative coordinates expanding past blaming everyone else.

Faint-Hearts Aren’t Ready to Advance

Faint-heart is an actual fictional character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Faint-heart joined the progress/advance with Christian and Faithful for a while, but abandoned the path and went back to the City of Destruction.

Cowards hide from conflict, and lose passively. Little-faiths lay down to get out of the wind and are, of course, caught in the wind longer. Lose-hearts lose heart, they give up.

Two things. One, again, the world is full of scary things as well as bad things, and even if you could avoid the scary and bad, there’s still gravity. Things are heavy, hard. Plus, the more imaginative you are, the more you may be able to imagine how painful something will be, the losses you could experience. Staying the course is more like crossing the English Channel with a kick-board; it’s within reach but it’ll be rough.

Two, being afraid is not just possible, some of it is quite reasonable. When O’Brien threatens to strap the cage of rats to Winston’s face in 1984, that’s only a visceral fear, when in fact, all of 1984 is a red-pill of dystopian anxiety that was bad when it was fiction, let alone when it turned 2020. It makes sense that the hobbits wanted nothing to do with the Nazgul, the Balrog, or with Shelob; watch out for Tolkien monsters with six letter names. The point is not that the next page is sure to have cuddly puppies, or a pot of gold, but that we’re willing to advance.

It’s not fiction, but Paul does plot some imaginative coordinates in 2 Corinthians 4.

“So we do not lose heart… For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16a, 17–18 ESV)

It takes faith, and isn’t one part of faith being stronger is faith seeing further? Your picture of glory is probably too small. In order to not lose heart you need your imaginative coordinates enlarged.

Faint-hearts are stuck without their imaginative coordinates expanding past the immediate difficulties and inevitable discouragements.

Cynics Aren’t Ready to Advance

A pessimist is just a baby cynic, someone who can’t see anything good. A full-grown cynic is more like a nihilist, who thinks there is no point. This is why there are less Crazy-villains and more Cynic-villains. When you’re reading, and then when you’re thinking about your own responses to things, complaints unchecked lead to souls undone, and that leads to destruction. Cynicism is a self-fulfilling chaos-maker.

The disillusioned have imagination that is twisted toward their own self-interest. In their mind there’s no reason to be honorable, in fact, the honorable should be exposed and brought down.

Scrooge was a cynic, the Grinch was a cynic. They not only had bad attitudes in private, their suspicious and scoffing attitudes wanted others to pay. It was the same with Denethor and Saruman, whose cynicism led to lust for power to cause pain. They couldn’t leave well-enough alone. Shift’s cynicism opened up Narnia to slavery, murder, and eventually to being devoured by the real Tash.

Cynics are stuck without their imaginative coordinates expanding past the vices and vanities surrounding them.

On We Go

Why be so negative if the emphasis should be on advancing by the expanse of imaginative coordinates? First, because these are challenges that I’ve run into while trying advance. Second, because there are prerequisites to advancing, like not tying your shoelaces to a table leg. Third, because maybe you are one of the stuck, and you can’t imagine not being stuck, but actually fiction shows characters like you can get unstuck! It might require repentance, it might require a change in mental diet, but it is possible.

Fiction is fun, it’s entertaining, sure. But it can change your mind, and that can change/build your world. Good stories are imaginative mirrors to appall the ugly out of you, imaginative protein for world-building muscle, and imaginative coordinates to explore beyond the visible map.

Good fiction helps you be ready to meet all expectations, plotting imaginative coordinates IS part of making a fully ready non-fiction rumpus.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated,

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

Till you have fiction, you may be stuck on your rump.