The Symbiosis of Conflict and Imagination

By Joseph Hartshorn. Joseph, 37, is a MA Creative Writing student at Oxford Brookes University and works part-time for the Story Museum. He lives in Oxford, UK. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

“If there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading.” – Veronica Roth.

To explore the statement, a couple of general assumptions must be made:

1. That most people consume some form of narrative, be it personal interaction, fictional or religious literature, celebrity culture, current events as communicated by news outlets or in film.

2. That in consuming or generating narrative, they apply it to their own lives and can visualise a future (however realistic or fantastic) which aligns with this narrative.

With such assumptions out of the way, let us begin. Let us begin with the blossom of imagination, our early childhood, and an example of how an imagination may be formed. Let us take a child of any culture, any period, any standing in society and introduce them to conflict.

Initial conflict.

The child, now mobile, but not yet able to articulate their emotions, their needs or wants, would like a sugary treat. The hand raises towards the brightly coloured, possibly sugary thing, and there comes a booming, terrifying voice from above: ‘No!’

The world is out of the child’s control – to merely want is not enough, there must be a method of attainment. Without control, there can be no attainment in this world, and therefore the child must create a world of their own, where they can replay the scenario, with the possible outcomes of anger, sadness or acceptance. The imaginary world they create will become a useful tool for them as they grow older.

Meeting with narrative.

At times, as they grow older, they will not have the necessary experience to deal with conflict. It becomes imperative that they seek out other narratives to inform their own. Often this takes the form of interpersonal communication, but also includes text or image as well. They consume or discard such stories if they do or not align with conflicts they may face.

The same child, now an adolescent, will consume narrative widely as they attempt to attain an identity. They may begin to listen to songs of love or read stories of adventure as they begin to wrestle with loneliness and boredom. Their inner world can become dangerous, violent or subversive as they consume the narratives that address such things, which are often presented vividly with bright and bold colours, and strident broad strokes. The dangers of such narratives are a subject of much debate – how far will one go to emulate these extravagant narratives of extremes, expecting similar triumphs?

Exploring wider narratives.

However, in consuming stories, by osmosis, a personal connection with writers, artists or one’s peers is established. To consume narratives that address day-to-day conflicts, one has to empathise and understand. We must use our inner world to emulate the senses involved in a story. Regardless of the setting of the story, the main crux of the conflict held within must in some way translate to one’s lived experience.

A confluence of conflict.

The adolescent, now entering the field of work, let us say at the age of 21, must look for or generate subtler narratives to inform their actions in their daily life, or risk constantly engaging in conflicts in which they will not triumph. Their ways of dealing with defeat will also change, for the conflicts they face will be more consistent, their victories rarer. For some, they may reframe defeat as a tactical retreat, and begin to look at their life as one long conflict with a series of battles. They may have learned how to pick their battles wisely, thereby growing in confidence, but risking the chance of a defeat where they react with anger or sadness. Conversely, there may be those who too readily accept defeat, and do not understand how to accept or capitalize on victory.

Having navigated the first major conflicts of their narrative, our young hero may have established a long-term relationship, a mission, or a child of their own. They are now, perhaps, between the ages of 25 to 35 and must consume or generate ever more useful narratives. To be useful, these stories must address the conflicts of cohabitation with a spouse, area-specific conflicts such as how to balance financial accounts or stories of how best to rear a child. They may look to stories that take them away from such things, allowing them to dwell in the imaginary world at its most comforting – where the hero wins the day and triumphs over despair – or where it is resolutely depressing – where the hero falls and is consumed by darkness. These latter stories allow the 25 to 35 year old to recontextualize their lived experience, either by augmenting their mundane daily conflicts with a sense of otherworldliness returning to the bright, broad stories of their youth, or by comparing their conflicts with those suffered by characters less fortunate than themselves.

As our young professional moves through each new conflict, they begin to see reflections and shadows of conflicts long past. They may encounter younger people who undergo similar conflicts to those in the past, and by now our young professional may well have many autobiographical parables which they are only too glad to dispense. There arises a comfort in comparing conflicts and conflict resolutions for the young professional, and confidence in relaying the lessons learned the first time around.

There is also a certain sense of loss when it becomes apparent that conflicts undergone are not necessarily unique, and this in itself may cause a conflict of identity. The result of this loss is an understanding that certain conflicts are long over and that particular stage has been cleared. The protagonist must begin to dress in a new costume.

The long battle ahead.

As the individual progresses towards middle age, the conflicts of family and working life are dwarfed by the approaching spectres of Time, Age and Mortality. Time seems to be racing ahead, with barely the opportunity for reflection; the body slows and changes, making physical conflict more difficult; and before our eyes, our parents and elders, our oldest enemies, those who emerged victorious over our childhood conflicts, begin to diminish and seem unable to triumph over Mortality.

And so the existential drama that seemed so violent and dangerous in adolescence becomes a reality, and yet the nature of the conflict has lost its claws in its loss of imaginary vitality. That isn’t to say that it is no less a conflict worth telling or listening to, but it is less a battle and more a stilted, awkward debate between the individual and the reality of Mortality. In watching helplessly against the tide of death that sweeps our parents and elders away, the stories of triumph over evil, of happily ever after, of endless summer and endless youth, all seem far-fetched and only half told. Our reward for coming to this realisation is only a deeper understanding of how defeat transforms us.

The body-strewn road.

The swipes and blows now come thick and fast. Our now retired, elderly individual may spot someone they went to school with lying in the gutter, pass the gasping school bully robbed of his menace as he drinks himself into oblivion, or encounter the terrifying pain of the husband or wife losing their memory. There are no longer villains or heroes, only the inevitable crawling in the dust and final expiration. One can continue to fight or one can despair, or one becomes so used to the hardship of struggling on that the very thought of an end may inspire a certain kind of perverse joy.

Our elderly protagonist must by now have begun to find confluences between their inner and outer worlds. They may well be quite adept at it. They have not won the war against Mortality, but they have hopefully found a way to sidestep its fiercest blows. They must rely now on memory of conflicts past, of personal narrative, of the long story of their life to shield them from the plague of regret, shame or bitterness.

Moving a mountain with a whisper.

Whatever stories have unfolded along the journey of our weary, battle-scarred and dying hero, it is manifestly true that they must have an end. The end of a story must reveal something not just about the teller, but about the world in which they have resided. The hero is made of conflicts, not just their own, but of all those that have blown gales into their sails, dragged them through the mud, or pushed them from precipices. The hero must come to a rest, to allow the drama to cease, the oscillation between good and evil to slow until there are only graceful arcs where there were once only jagged edges. The colours will dim and the sounds will soften, and instead of conflict, for the first, and perhaps the last time, harmony is earned.

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