Sometimes life surprises us, right? Unexpected things happen – both good and bad. We win a raffle. We get a call in the night – someone we love is sick, and the world goes upside down. We hear from an old friend we thought we had lost. We read a headline that doesn’t seem to make sense, not according to the way we believe the world works.
We assume one thing, another thing happens. My sister and I have talked a lot about the idea of an “assumptive world,” and about how wrong we can sometimes be, how surprised we are (and, oddly, continue to be) when illogical things happen. Of course, it would make sense to adjust our assumptions. Why don’t we? Maybe the question is, can we? What sets our assumptions in cement from a very early age?
Here’s a definition: “The assumptive world is an organized schema reflecting all that a person assumes to be true about the world and the self on the basis of previous experiences; it refers to the assumptions, or beliefs, that ground, secure, and orient people, that give a sense of reality, meaning, or purpose to life.”
As writers we might consider how important it is for us to understand the assumptive world of our characters. What are their guiding beliefs about the way the world works? What beliefs “ground, secure and orient” them? Of course, not all their beliefs will be rosy – even writing for children, we might create characters who believe that life is basically unfair and chaotic. They might believe that people are intrinsically selfish. They might believe that the world works not the way it should – rewarding hard work and dispensing privileges accordingly – but in a way that always leaves them personally disenfranchised and broken. Or they might believe, as Anne Frank wrote, that people are fundamentally good and decent. I usually believe people try their hardest to be good. Sometimes they get exhausted and do crazy things.
If we can determine the overriding belief system of our characters (and our fellow citizens, actually) then we can more gracefully and successfully describe and understand how they respond to events that unfold. Which hopefully adds a degree of truth to our writing.
Surprise can come at us pleasantly or unpleasantly. Michael Moore, in a recent opinion piece said that liberals would be surprised by the most recent election results because they “live in a bubble.” That bubble might be as simple as an economically privileged state which narrows a person’s experiences. But it could also be a bubble of assumptions about how people in different circumstances will behave in general. How do we sometimes read the world so incorrectly? I was ashamed to be wrong about how the election would turn out. It felt like I lacked the imagination to understand a huge number of Americans. Could I have been one of the clueless characters in Saturday Night Live’s skit about election night? Yes, I could have.
If someone were writing a story about me, he or she would need to know that I assume the world is a logical place. I usually look for logic, plain and simple, which means I spend a lot of time confused, because life is not plain and simple and mathematical, and I usually find the world’s lack of logic and its inscrutability staring right back at me. “Why does this happen?” and “How does this happen?” are questions that come up a lot in my life, about all kinds of things.
I’m comforted by scientific explanations (“This tree was hit by lightning because of the following facts about lightning”) but made uneasy by luck (“The poor guy standing under the tree was hit by lightning because the gods felt brutal and playful.”)
Yes, I’m drawn to the illogical, but that’s because I just don’t understand it. Faced with mysteries – whether beautiful or brutal or both – I ask a lot of questions, annoy some people, and write many poems.
I long to understand how people and nature behave, and I’m curious about my own failure to figure it all out. Why do I even have or want an “organized schema” of how the world works if there is nothing organized or schematic about it? Maybe, if an author created me, I would be a difficult character in a book – constantly befuddled. Befuddlement – yes, that’s what I’ve been feeling since Tuesday. That’s where my assumptions left me. I’m either tremendously wrong about logic being in charge of the universe or I’m stubborn – I don’t want to admit that luck or playful gods have anything to do with making Life’s rules. I want two plus two to equal four, for heaven’s sake. But I hear a little voice in my head whispering, “Surprise!”