Plausibility and Beyond

(Image adapted from Bogomil Mihaylov at

I am an engaging, effective hypnotist. How do I know that? Because when I hypnotize myself, usually with the assistance of a light and sound machine, that’s what I tell myself. I’ve repeated that mantra in my mind often, and as a result, it’s as good as true.

If you’ve visited the Abbey before, you’ll know I’m fascinated by the machinery of the mind to an alarming degree. A goodly chunk of the literary theory I regularly study focuses on the ways in which our worlds are constructed by our noggins, no matter what Samuel Johnson might say. When I teach rhetorical analysis in my composition classes, I tend to focus on how writing effectively creates its own readers, pinning them down with a series of linguistic invitations and solicitations in even the blandest modes of expository prose. Reread the first sentence here, and you’ll see what I mean. And of course in hypnosis, where the work of conveying suggestions centers on phrasing and framing, it’s easy to indulge the impulse to build whole worlds out of half-truths.

There’s something vaguely counterintuitive about it, but it’s ridiculously easy to spot in just about every facet of our lives. Ever met a critter who imagines themself as an underdog but comes to the table with just about every kind of cultural, educational, and economic advantage? They had to dream themselves into being, dealing all the cards that were stacked against them, all the opposition they faced and overcame. If you’re asked to imagine a dog, do you imagine some freakish ur-canine, or do you conjure up a vision of your pooch of choice? Ever tried to break a habit but–alas!–you’ve convinced yourself that it’s simply too ingrained in your days and ways to shake? It’s that sort of thing.When we have a little time for critical self-examination, a set of self-inflicted patterns we’ve built and installed rises up to the surface like a secret Braille code. We impose meanings on ourselves–stories on ourselves, by and large–to explain why we are who we are and why we do what we do.

One of the simplest formulations of the act occurs in our creative writing classes, where all of our faculty communicates in terms of states of being rather than doing. “You’re an ingenious writer,” we’ll say, and then proceed as though it were true. Because it is, like it or not. There’s no sublime act of creation or naming going on–we’re just acknowledging a state of affairs that the writer might not already recognize, and we’re acknowledging it in a distinctive way. Saying “your writing is ingenious,” as the youth are wont to note, hits a little different; saying “you write ingeniously” might feel nice, but it has a different vibe. When I hypnotize a client I’ll throw several variations on the same kind of idea at them, and before long they find themselves surrounded by a legion of affirmative identities they can’t escape.

I find that most of my writing consists of plausibility strings, strings I follow as far as I can go before tying them in to something wiggedy. The trick for me usually involves making sure the wiggedy thing is plausible, too, at least at some level. Take, for instance, the image above, the curlicue of a particularly photogenic cucumber tendril. Those tendrils, as gardeners know, operate a bit like ivy, allowing the plant to latch on to something stable and pull themselves up to get more leaves into the sun. I can use a simple, natural occurrence like that as a foundation for the depiction of flora that acts similarly, perhaps for some more sinister end, pulling other things down rather than trying to raise itself up. Press the notion a little further–maybe add size or sentience into the mix–and you’ve got yourself a manageable monster.

The catch here is that I have literally no idea what kind of plant that really is. I started out with a little fib, and that fib was already predicated on snatches of truth. I’ve watched enough Gardener’s World to know how ferns work, uncurling from similar spirals, but that’s my only semisolid frame of reference. I’ve seen enough cucumber plants to know they have tendrils, so that might be true or truthy, and I’ve seen how ivy clings. That’s about as far as I can stretch. But if it felt true enough to go on, it’s functionally true. No point in quibbling about it. Eventually the reader will be able to see the seams of what I’ve stitched together, but they can be hard to spot when you’re working with two balls of yarn dyed the same curious color from the get-go.

I’m terribly fond of this kind of thinking, which I tend to think of as one of the most accessibly modes of creativity. And whenever I suspect I might have stretched my plausibility strings too far, I remember who I am as a reader myself, someone who’s willing to follow that slender tether into the minotaur’s maze, sure I can find my way back out.

And if it happens to break when I’m deep down in the dark? So much the better.