Last weekend I was at a mountainy hideout near Taos, New Mexico, and two teacher friends were conversing about children's books and particularly the work of David Wiesner, who is famous for his picture books that tell quirky stories without words. One of them, Sector 7, centers on a cloud factory in the sky. Tuesday is a wordless tale of flying frogs at night. Good stuff.
I found myself passionately praising a book from grade school that has remained close to my mind--or perhaps I should say under it. In Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984), the author tells us that the titular gentleman approached his friend Peter Wenders with a set of illustrations for his stories--but not the stories themselves. Each picture bore a title and a caption. Wenders was intrigued, and Burdick promised to return the next day with the stories. But he never did. Wenders never heard from him again.
So Van Allsburg's book is just the pictures, each with its title and caption. The story is left to the reader. It's an amazingly simple and brilliant conceit. You read a book, and in doing so, you write the stories. You can't help it; the pictures are so evocative that one's imagination ignites. Some are funny, all are odd, and a few are beautifully mysterious. One of my favorites featured a boy in the woods, looking at a creek by whose banks sits a lovely harp. The title is simply "The Harp." The caption? "So it's true, he thought. It's really true."
In 2007 I wrote a silly but generally accurate blog post drawing a metaphor between my sense of creative impulse and the walk-through-walls code from the video game Final Fantasy 2 (1991). The code's significant bugs bored holes in the game's programming, giving the player access to a strange, dreamlike underworld of mostly uncontrollable scenes and images. The normal gameplay proceeded in a steady narrative, and as a youngster I was both unnerved and fascinated by this mysterious break in the linearity.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a more elegantly pronounced influence on the same aspect of my creativity. In my grade-school class we were encouraged to write our own stories based on the pictures. I'll admit that the suggestion of a story, for me, is more entrancing than the details of the story, even if I'm the one who gets to write it. I've said of other cultural products (to name a few TV series,Twin Peaks and LOST and more recently Top of the Lake) that it seems the mystery's solution is inevitably disappointing. Give me the mystery itself. Don't solve it. Keep the answers. Give me the questions.
This is why I've always taken to the paintings of Rene Magritte. They are only questions.
I might even suggest that this is why I became a composer rather than, say, a fiction writer. I prefer to explore, to map, to convey the atmosphere of a specific moment, rather than plotting a series of them.
If you work with youngsters, or even if you don't, check out The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. This weird little book really helped make me who I am and love what I love.
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