How Can It Be?

Sometimes we want to know what is there, or what will happen, which is “what is there?” but for events.

If I ride on this roller coaster will I fall and break my head? If I go to that store, will there be ice-cream?

But sometimes we want to know, how can it be? How can it be, that ice-cream tastes good but will give me a heart attack and make me feel bad? How could it be that if I fell off that roller coaster and broke my head — my head which is basically a box made of collagen and calcium phosphate — I will be gone?

After all, as far back as I can remember, I was always here!

I remember an argument I had once with a fellow writer when I was part of a group working on a script. Because of other things happening in the show we wanted one particular character to have a father who spoke Mandarin Chinese. However, we had established in the show that the father was an uneducated man, who had grown up his entire life living in Batesville, Arkansas. Nobody Chinese lived there. And there was no opportunity to learn Chinese. And the character grew up before the internet. We really wanted this character to know Chinese, but my colleague wanted to know — how could we do it?

My answer was we write a line of dialogue “I can speak Chinese” give it to the actor playing the father, have him say it in front of the audience, and by simply doing those things, the character would know Chinese.

From my colleague’s perspective “How could we make the father know Chinese?” had no answer, and he concluded we couldn’t. From my perspective “How could we make the father know Chinese?” had an obvious answer. There was no father in real life. He was a fictional character in a television show that we were writing. To make him know Chinese was the easiest thing in the world.

In a sense, we were each right.

How could that be?

I’m not sure. I have some inklings but they would take more space to expatiate than I have in this essay, as well as more time than I have this moment at the ready. But I have a suspicion.

I think “how can this be?” questions invite us to think about limitations and the overcoming of limitations. What was the limit or obstacle to the flow of energy that congealed into this state of affairs? What stopped things from being otherwise?

In my colleague’s mind, the obstacle was the consistency of the fictional universe we had created. He answered the question “How could the father speak Chinese?” by saying: he couldn’t.

In my mind, the obstacle was the conventions of actually writing and creating a television show. I answered the question “How could the father speak Chinese?” by saying: easiest thing in the world. Put it in the script and send the script to the actors.

Our sense of what a limit is only makes sense against a background understanding of unimpeded flow, and vice versa.

I think it may ultimately (ultimately?) come down to our personal sense of being empowered. Or not.


2 thoughts on “How Can It Be?

  1. I think you’re correct, though I probably wouldn’t phrase the answer as you did. In order to know what makes sense, we must know what things are; and what they are, is bounded inevitably by what they *are not*. To be finite is to be limited: that’s part of what “finite” means.

    One limit of an American character who is described as uneducated would be an inability to speak Chinese. If he can speak Chinese, it requires a special explanation. To give him the ability just by inserting a line of dialogue amounts to a *Deus ex machina* solution to the problem.

    In general (if I may digress), art needs to be *more logical* than real life. In real life, seemingly random events often occur; but in stories, we want to know *why* they occurred. In real life, the answer is sometimes “just because” and we have to live with that. In fiction, we want things to make sense, unless the fiction’s specific artistic goal is to show how things sometimes do *not* make sense.

    My two cents’ worth.

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