Last night I watched the old 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon, which featured one of the very few positive portrayals of a polyamorous relationship in any popular film. Since as a psychologist I happen to know something about the research on poly relationships, namely that they can be healthier in many ways than traditional monogamous relationships or so-called “nuclear” families, I find it interesting that so few film or literary portrayals of these relationships exist. Then of course, there’s also the point that so predictably, by the end of the film this tender, indeed quite wonderful picture of a poly marriage between two men and one woman has to be completely dismantled, with the surviving couple embracing traditional one woman, one man marriage.
The ending doesn’t ring true, of course. The tenderness and vitality of the threesome and the vitality and health of the community of miners who support and embrace their marriage, feels like the thing the writers really believed in. As the mining town collapses into the ground upon the arrival of the preacher and the “good people” who show up to colonize and wreck the place, we have a fleeting image of one of the collapsing buildings, bearing the sign “Garden of Eden.” The film is deeply subversive in the good sense of that term — it lays out an alternative vision of a truly beautiful form of existence found seldom in our culture, and the implied question, behind the false commercial ending, is “why not?”
But as any writer with experience knows, they would have never made the film if it ended with a happy three-person marriage intact. While most great literature is inclined to be subversive and you might say, constructively sociopathic, most commercial success depends on drowning those creative little kittens in a basket under a cold, deep stream of green. Just as the only marketable solution to Paint Your Wagon was let one of the guys go off alone and to force the other two to smile and say they really prefer him gone, you may have to spend a lot of time with your agent wrassling your subversions into a form that will seem marketable. How to do this and not lose your own vision?
(If you are very lucky, you’ll have an agent and/or editor who really supports your vision — they don’t steer you into something more “commercial” and never lecture you about what the other kids are selling; rather, they and you will engage this question together and in depth.)
The problem for a writer is first viewed mainly from their own point of view as a person. As a writer, you probably tend to be something of an outsider, a marginal observer more than a red-blooded full participant in your family, community, culture. And you have a vivid imagination and so if you ask “what if?” questions, you can start to have fun filling in the blanks. What if two men loved one woman and they wouldn’t accept the necessity of duels or grief to solve the problem? What if space aliens really did land here? What if Washington lost the revolutionary war? Get most writers going on those kinds of questions, and they can immediately start to fill in the hypothetical “history,” often with what feels to them like improved visions of what might have been.
But selling it is another thing. Two categories of reasons for this tend to be cited: political and commercial. While the commercial reasons are generally simple in concept — “it’s great, kid, but it’ll never sell…” — the political may be less familiar but equally important to writers.
“Political” is shorthand for what in real life is the counterpart of the The Matrix — it’s the complex network of institutions and their ways of controlling things in our world, including how we even see and experience our world, which exists to maintain the current power relationships. Political includes formal “institutions” like the government (who can fine a “wardrobe malfunction” or cordon off protest speakers), religious organizations that try to influence policy, and politicians who seek to enforce or create restrictive laws. (Political forces are also shaped by the commercial — many if not most of our laws are engineered by corporations for their own profit-seeking motives.)
Most of all, “political” forces include the active participation of anyone in our society who reacts against threats to the status quo: if you say a “bad” word at a party, voice a suspiciously different opinion at church, or wear the wrong clothes to the club, somebody somewhere will take it upon themselves to let you know and try to make you change. Not always, and seldom consciously doing it as a self-appointed “town marshall,” but they will have an unconscious “need” of their own to somehow let you know you’re straying too far, buddy. And you only need to be “corrected” about ten percent of the time for the lessons to affect you on a deep unconscious level.
Your agents, your editors, the people you pitch a script to, all work within the confines of this political and commercial matrix. If anything, they probably know their way around the matrix far better than you do. If you’re lucky, or work in a genre where “different is good” this may not create a crippling set of problems for you in getting your voice out there. But since real life is never like the fantasy, the most successful writers will generally have to find some way to navigate the matrix.
One clue to doing so may be based on going beyond the usual “political or commercial” theories. Meaning, understanding something about the psychology of conservatism. I’m not talking about merely the “Rush” brand of conservatism, though it includes this too. (And reducing all conservatism to “evil fucking blowhards” won’t help you think this through.) Rather, it’s useful to think about the psychological needs and difficulties that lead not just “right wingers” but most people to generally prefer the familiar versions of reality in their stories, whether stories are movies or books or those magazine pieces on “five ways to get the gerbils out of your shoes” that are the bread and butter of many writers.
A simple key to understanding this is to see your job as a writer as that of filling in gaps. Because the thing that makes people uneasy about, say, a story about a polyamorous relationship, is “what then?” Just as, when I was a kid, my father gently explained that I should not consider dating black girls because “nobody will accept the children,” most people don’t understand how to think about your wonderful, alternative version of how life could be because they just can not imagine how it will play out as well as the “normal” way of doing things. What then? What will your little half-black baby do? What will happen to a poly family after the movie ends?
And if they can’t imagine the answers to those questions, they simply will not accept the story.
Or they will fill in the blanks with the available stock visions, and once that happens, your vision may be sunk simply because the stock versions are not what you had in mind, and odds are, they’re not at all pleasant.
Take poly relationships. The current dominant vision of polyamory is a pretty unappealing one: a gristly 99 year old Mormon humping a dozen thirteen year old semi-retarded slave wives pretty much captures it. Who (other than 99 year old Mormon geezers) wants that? If that is the only possible version of “what might be,” your partially completed vision of an alternative community of polyamorous good people will be very hard to market.
People can’t help but fill in the blanks, generally with very stereotyped fillers. Writers may forget that most people are not like them — they’re not good at imagining or constructing new and more satisfying resolutions to the “what then?” questions. For most of your potential readers, it may not be obvious how this will play out, how it will work. In fact, for the most part, your readers don’t really like ambiguity.
Psychological researchers are now saying that future conservatives were most often children who were more anxious than average about having things be structured and predictable. They needed things more orderly, and would be uncomfortable otherwise. Which is sad, but not necessarily evil.
Living deep within your audience like a possessing demon, the conservative tendency will gnaw at them for closure, certainty, and above all, predictability. Your vision has to somehow mesh with their usual, preferred story. Good guys win, bad guys are punished. None of this “there was something good in the criminal” or “the good guys were morally corrupt too” shit. They just won’t have it. End of story. (“End of story” is, you may have noticed, a favorite argument-ender of right wing pundits and mentalities. In saying “end of story” one is really saying “now we have closure and a version of the ‘truth’ I like, everything is tidy, there are no loose ends, so stop talking.” Conservative thinking distilled into a single phrase, that.)
What this all implies is that if you are a writer with an alternative view of what reality can be, your job is to fill in the gaps. Don’t let them end the story in their usual way. Show (don’t tell — too scary) your readers what might be. Flesh it out. Make it work and above all, align your vision of alternative ways of living or thinking with the values you probably do share with your conservative audience: justice, truth, love, creativity, whatever. Showing frightened people how fire works is, in the end, more constructive than just yelling at them that they are scared of a little light and warmth.
This is what successful writers do. Often, the simplest way to put it is that they show the “alternative” character from the inside, and this appeals to at least a critical mass of open readers who may feel, yeah, he’s different from me, but I get it.
And don’t forget your other ally: the other “angel” inside the reader who is, herself or himself, “different” and open to, and even hungry for alternative visions, deeper understandings, new ways of seeing and feeling. Forget this half of the equation and everything I’ve said can come off as far more condescending to the “dumb brutes” than I mean it to. I, too, like the familiar a lot of the time. Much of life functioning at all depends on a 90% familiar experience most days.
I wish Paint Your Wagon ended at the “intermission” that is still built into the recording of the film. Three people love each other, adapt to each other, solve problems together, and we can leave them to their life.