Katie Staten

Life through a Literary Lens

Good Omens, and the Moral Grace of Imagination

Good Omens has been a bit under fire since the new TV series on Amazon kindled a whole new audience’s love for it. Well, what do you expect? You create a piece of media steeped in religion-based comedy, you’re bound to see some mixed responses. But one of the reasons for the backlash is rooted in, frankly, one of Good Omens’ best elements: its clever subversion of the oft-unquestioned concepts that Heaven is always good, Hell is always evil, and mere humans are always, somewhat helplessly, caught between the two.

Be warned: Spoilers ahead!

Good Omens, both in text and on screen, tells us from the beginning that humans are in fact far from helpless, that our very humanity is what dictates the push and pull of the world:

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.

As we go on through the story, especially on screen, we discover the reason humans seem to be a greater force than either Heaven or Hell: Imagination.

To understand the role of imagination, we need to first look at the roles of Heaven and Hell, and of angels and demons. What strikes me about Good Omens more than anything—even more so in the show than in the book—is that angels and demons really aren’t all that different.

We expect Hell to be full of beings that play dirty, behave with brutality, and only care about getting what they want. But we also expect that Heaven will be full of love and compassion. Good Omens gives us a glimpse into a different world—one in which Heaven and Hell truly are two sides of the same coin, both equally unforgiving and equally more interested in being right than in being righteous.

Angels are ruthless. Angels care only about winning their war; they physically assault Aziraphale for not obeying, and they prioritize their victories above all of humanity. Gabriel tells [who he thinks is] Aziraphale to “shut [his] stupid mouth and die already” when he appeals to that thing Heaven is supposed to be all about promoting—the Greater Good.

So where is Heaven’s compassion? In the angel Aziraphale, it turns out…and, unexpectedly, in the demon Crowley. Having spent six millennia on Earth, they’re far more human than either of their respective teams—and have developed a very human-like sense of imagination.

Because Aziraphale and Crowley have spent enough time among humans to have an imagination, they can imagine things beyond this binary that has been constructed for them.  They have the ability to do things no other angel or no other demon can, simply because they have an imagination. Because they have seen themselves and the world around them as more than the roles they’ve been assigned.

When Aziraphale is told that he as an angel can’t possess people, his sly “But demons can” reminds us that they are made of the same stuff.  See, the other angels can’t imagine Heaven being anything but Good, Hell being anything but Evil, or especially angels having the same capabilities as demons (or vice versa), but Aziraphale and Crowley, because of their imagination—because of their HUMANITY—can.

Humans are, after all, the real heroes of Good Omens. The beings divine and demonic in this grand celestial war are all background noise. Even our protagonists, Aziraphale and Crowley, are the love story subplot on the periphery of the main action.

The entire culmination of the story ends with one boy deciding that his role, determined for him millennia prior, isn’t for him. Adam literally rejects reality as he’s been told to accept it in order to stop Armageddon.

Humanity is the key to saving the world.

This is, in my eyes, the heart of Good Omens. Humans can imagine ourselves and each other, and most importantly the world around us, as something other than what it is. That gives us this profound and beautiful ability to build the world as our own, regardless of what we were given.

That ability, that knowledge not of what is but what could be, is the saving grace of humanity. It’s what gives us more power over the world than all the forces of Heaven and Hell.

Maybe that’s the knowledge the apple gave us, when Adam and Eve took those forbidden bites. Maybe this knowledge that we were never meant to have is what gave us everything we are, including the power to shape the world.

And there never was an apple, in Adam’s opinion, that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.

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Confession: I Feel Better When I See You Fail

I know it sounds unfair or even mean-spirited. It sounds petty and bitter. But this is the honest truth: If you’re a successful person, I’d rather see your failures than your successes.

It isn’t that I don’t enjoy your success, or don’t want you to have it. Success stories simply don’t inspire me like failure stories do. Don’t get me wrong, it makes me happy and even proud to see people overcome obstacles! But let’s be realistic: Not every obstacle gets to be overcome. Some obstacles can’t be overcome. Others can be, but maybe you’re not in the right headspace for it, or you were too tired, or maybe you even just got lazy or procrastinated and life got the better of you. It happens.

The truth is we get knocked down way more often than we jump over big hurdles. And those are the stories I want to hear.

I remember distinctly the first time I realized this. I had just discovered that Neil Gaiman, an author I had long loved and admired, had a Tumblr account. So I was perusing it out of curiosity, and I saw this:

My favorite author said that. “I can do that with things I wrote this morning.

And for a moment I thought, that can’t be right. This is Neil effing Gaiman. He’s a good writer. He writes things people all over the world love! He’s successful. Sure, we’re all our own worst critics, but he must take pride in even the work that needs improvement! Hell, I thought, I bet his worst writing is better than my best.

But slowly, I began to realize two things.

One: Even great writers write absolute garbage sometimes.

Two: Even writing that is good, that will resonate with lots of people, is sometimes hated or at least doubted by its creator.

Which lead me to more conclusions: That just because I write badly doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer, and that just because I hate what I’m writing doesn’t even necessarily mean I’m writing badly.

It was like I had unlocked something. Probably something the rest of the world knew, but I just couldn’t seem to internalize. So to anyone who needs it: Sometimes successful people suck at what they do, or they doubt themselves, or they struggle to get a word on paper.

I need to remember that sometimes.

That’s why I continue to follow Neil Gaiman on Tumblr, where his views on what it means to make art or be a writer are what keep me wanting to write.

That’s why I think George R.R. Martin and his long delays between books is a damn inspiration. (When he asked Stephen King, “You always get six pages [written a day]? You never get constipated? You never get up and go get the mail, and think ‘Maybe I don’t have any talent and should have been a plumber?'” Boy I felt that.)

That’s especially why Anne Lamott’s S***ty First Drafts has been perpetually on my re-reading list, to be revisited at least twice a year, since I first read it in when I was in college.

I don’t always want to know what you did well. I don’t want to hear about child prodigies–they always make me wonder if it’s too late for me. I don’t want to hear about people who won against all odds, because I can’t always see myself in the winners. We all, as creators–and we’re all creators, in some sense of the word–have a touch of impostor syndrome.

So tell me about yours. Tell me about when the odds defeated you. Tell me about the days or weeks when you can’t make anything. Tell me about when executive dysfunction keeps you from picking up a pen (/paintbrush/instrument/tool of your choosing), or when writer’s block keeps your talents at bay for longer than you care to admit, or when you doubt those talents ever existed in the first place. If you show me the things you’ve made that you’re proud of, also show me the days you sat in the quiet battling yourself and wondering if you ever should have tried to make anything in the first place.

Sometimes I think we all need to be reminded that our heroes are only human. At least for me, that’s what keeps me capable of hoping to join them.

NaPoWriMo Wrap-Up

This year was my fifth attempt at completing NaPoWriMo, and I hoped it would be my third completion, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

I was out of state for a week and didn’t have consistent access to a laptop–that alone made it daunting, because doing this from mobile is kind of a pain for me, but I might have soldiered on anyway.

But I was also with family I hadn’t seen in almost two years, who hadn’t had a chance to meet my daughter yet (she’s 16 months old, and last time they saw me I was about four months pregnant with her). So not only did I not want to fight with doing things on a small cell phone that would’ve been much easier done on a computer, I also didn’t want to lock myself away from dear family for a couple hours or more a day to write. I hammered our a couple tanka, which were a delight because I always love finding new ways to use language within a small, controlled space, but I didn’t want that to be the bulk of my poems this year and I didn’t feel I had the time (or that I was willing to devote the time) to really exploring my writing like I prefer to for NaPoWriMo.

But I gotta say, I wrote some of my favorite poems I’ve ever done as part of a NaPoWriMo this year, and some of the prompts over at NaPoWriMo.net pushed me in ways I was really satisfied with.

I wrote my first abcedarian poem, which ended up being one of my favorites of this year. An origin poem of sorts gave me the opportunity to explore some really difficult but impactful times through writing. When asked to write a poem that sprawls through time, I delved into how my anxiety has manifested since childhood. When asked to write a poem about how to do something, I was able to finally write a poem about my grandfather I’d once tried to write in college and couldn’t at the time.

I was asked to write a poem about something simple and mundane, and why and how I loved it, turned out to be one I was kind of on the fence about at first but ended up really liking. A challenge to write something using very conversational language turned out to be one I felt the same way about. Similarly, the challenge to write a poem as a monologue turned out to be one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written!

I wrote 23 poems this month, and those right there are seven–SEVEN!–that I genuinely loved and felt proud of. Many more poems I wrote this month, while not ones I was particularly emotionally attached to, felt very new to me, which was a reward all on its own.

The first couple years I did NaPoWriMo, I did it just to prove I could do it–I could stick to writing a poem a day for 30 days. While I still hope to complete that challenge every year, I’m not super upset with myself for not doing so, because my goal has shifted–I just want to learn, test myself, try new directions, and hopefully write something I can be proud of, and I did all that this year.

This also reinvigorated my love of writing, which has fallen by the wayside the last year or so as I deal with parenthood and other life messes.

Thank you so much to everyone who read and commented this month. I tell myself I don’t write for praise or attention, but I can’t pretend the encouragement isn’t motivating! Some new people started following this blog this month too, so welcome to you guys, have a look around, etc.

I thought about pushing myself to catch up, or to at least pick up where I left off on the daily prompts, but I feel okay about holding off for now, focusing on other things, and getting back into writing at my own pace. Been a wild ride this month though, and as always, I love it. 10/10, will return to it next year.

Black Cat

NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 23–Prompt Here

Black as the vacuum
of space, with a galaxy
shining through each eye.
This fierce, soft beauty. This fierce,
soft miracle in sunlight.

Minuet

NaPoWriMo Day 22–Prompt Here

A rainstorm starts when
fingers dance on ivory,
cascades down my spine. 
It’s a grace I never learned,
so I fall in love again. 

Land of 10,000 Lakes

NaPoWriMo2019 Day 21–Prompt Here

cloudy-landscape-over-the-lake-at-algonquin-provincial-park-ontario

The land is riddled with them,
like some trypophoic nightmare,
holes in the face of our home
like pockmarks. We’re diseased
with water.

All that has ever been here is water–
sky-tinted water,
cloudy water,
swallowing everything while everything
devours it.

If you look close enough,
every creature has gills,
opening up in the necks of birds
and dogs
and mothers at shopping marts.
We shine like silver scales.
Sometimes we feed
on the things that
drown.

appropriate conversation for a party

NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 20–Prompt Here

Remember that time I almost died, he says,
laughing, because dying is funny
when it only almost happens, so I say,
which time? and he laughs again,
because by now he’s made habit
out of almost. I laugh too,
because I wrote a poem once
about a long night in the ER with him
and the way his heart wouldn’t slow down,
and that’s not funny per se
but laughing is the only answer
my throat will conjure. Remember
the next day, he says, and I don’t,
I only remember 3am waiting
for a fever to break, but just then
our daughter, born between almosts,
pulls at my sleeve, asking to be gathered
into my lap, and someone says
for the thousandth time
that she has my eyes, and she laughs.

After Winter

NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 19–Prompt Here

After winter one year they found a man’s
body not far from our apartment,
caked in mud along his back, lying low in the
ditch along the side of the highway.
Everyone was shocked, but no one really was.
Finding a body is unusual, violence is not.
Gratitude kisses the whole city on mornings like this,
hovering in the mouth of every survivor.
“I’m so glad it wasn’t me. I’m so glad it was
just someone.” Someone may as well be no one. Ambivalence
kisses the whole city on mornings like these.
Later that day, once the sirens had ceased
mingling with the sounds of spring,
news stations had already moved
on to fresher prospects.
People somewhere were dying of something
queerer, more unexpected than
rounds of ammo leaving holes for
snow to melt into. More exciting
tales to be spun. A week later I drove, due to
urgency of some errand, by the corner where this body
vied for public attention, half expecting to see it still,
waterlogged, maybe, from the snow that had buried it,
xanthic and pale, but of course it was gone. Was he
young? Did he know that he had maybe not yet reached the
zenith of his life? I drove past an empty ditch, on home.

Obituary

NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 18–Prompt Here

He is survived by the roses he planted
in the spring when he defied the vines
wrapped around his insides holding him in.

He is survived by the grass that still grows
over the burial plot next to his mother’s
where even now no body or headstone lies.

He is survived by his children. He is survived
by unfinished projects, creative fire hazards,
and a potted jungle at the living room window.

He is survived by all manner of beauty
he can no longer see. We hope, somewhere,
it brings him peace to know that beauty lives.

He is survived by the river, strong and lonely,
that carried is ashes to rest.

My Body Says

NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 17–Prompt Here

The hair on my chin proudly tells you
it’s a hand-me-down–no, an heirloom
I got from my mother,
who got hers from her mother,
just wisps, passed down through generations
in a container of self-consciousness
but that part I’m afraid I’ve lost.
Forgive me, all the women of my lineage.
I know it’s an old gift you gave me in these genes.

And speaking of jeans–
the hair on my legs
begs me not to wear them.
Advertises sundresses,
boasts the prickly curve of my calf–
let the pleated floral print
hover over a field of coarse grass.

The hair on my arms is quiet,
speaks only when spoken to.
The hair under them mumbles profanities
under its breath at passers by
but only when they deserve it.
It says, “It’s not your place to decide
whether I belong here.”
It says, “To hell with your lady-like.”