An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup. –H. L. Mencken
I’m not an idealist. Wait, I take that back. All writers are idealists of a sort. Writers live in ideals–the ideals of the perfect writing life, for example. We idealize such notions as time and health and great ideas. We idealize our own stories. But in the real world, I’m not an idealist. And sometimes I wonder if this lack of idealism walks hand in hand with an essential lack of creativity. Imagination is idealistic. It doesn’t dwell in the land of current reality, but what could be reality if we as creative individuals put our minds to solving problems. Believing that the world could be a better place is the essence of idealism.
To be honest, I don’t agree with Mencken’s soup analogy, as there is more than simple idealism going on. If a chef were to add the essence of rosewater to his soup, he might give it a sweet edge that enhances it. That is what creative people do. They play with ingredients, mixing a little of this or that to give their work spice or fragrance. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t begin with a foundation of soup. If rose petals become the primary ingredient instead of vegetables, then it’s no longer distinguishable as soup. It’s rosewater. Hot rosewater. And hot rosewater should be bathed in and not consumed as a dinner course.
So a writer, as a creative idealist, might very well add rose petals to his soup to see how the flavor comes out. I was carried away on this line of thinking after considering whether it’s a good idea to mix genres. Writers do it all the time, but what is the end result to all this mixing? In the science fiction and fantasy world, the result is often a weird gloppy mess that resembles a Dr. Seuss meal. Perhaps the characters are in space, initially tagging the story as science fiction, but the sylphs and magical incantations have muddied the broth to such a degree that the story no longer resembles science fiction. It’s fantasy at that point with a few science ingredients, rather than the other way around.
Some of these notions, these splits are arbitrary. Keeping to my food analogy, we think of vegetable soup as being composed of, well, vegetables. A strict scientific definition informs us that most of the “vegetables” are actually fruit because they bear seeds. At the same time, rose petals, by a strictly botanical definition, are a vegetable. In the realm of taste, though, there are foods that are strictly vegetables and some that are strictly fruit, and then there is an overlap, where the two circles on the Venn diagram meet. While you might accuse me of overextending my metaphor at this point, I am.
There is science. And there is fantasy (and chick lit and mystery and so many other distinct genres). And there is a this place in the middle where they meet because so much of life is still mystery to us. The Venn diagram has managed to get my mind out of the soup pot. Going back, I’m shuddering at the idea of adding even a little cabbage to rosewater–eau de cabbage? If you’re going to start with a foundation–and you should!–please add appropriate creative ingredients to the mix. Otherwise, your work is going to smell, and so much for my attempt at appreciating idealism.