A city of light and shadow

Listening to: “Lull” – Andrew Bird

To me, this bit in MirrorMask is the perfect fable-type analogy for the creative life–building a world around you, whether it be with pictures or with words or with deeds. And never being finished, because life is never finished and the creation, whatever form it may take, becomes your life. And that is good. Having it be narrated by Stephen Fry as an animate stack of books also helps.

In the beginning, she found herself in a new and empty space… And all was white… and the corners were a bit flaky, and the carpet was a bit manky… but it was a good space. And she sat in the center and saw a clean white sheet of void. She held the charm to her face. And reflected in the charm was a city of lost horizons, and tall and towering stories. And just as it had been reflected in the charm, so it appeared in the void. And when there was no more room, she turned it over and continued on the other side. So the void was filled from corner to corner on both sides. A city of front and back. A city of light and shadow. Then she rested on her bed and dreamed of her creation, and the lives that inhabited it. And in the days that followed there were other voids and other lights and other shadows. The charm she placed beneath the sign of the queen to show the city that she knew it would never be finished. Because the city was her life, and her dream. And it would live forever.

More Gaiman

I don’t mean to keep quoting Neil Gaiman, but… I’m gonna do it again. Sorry.

From The Sandman: The Wake–the last book of the series. This is William Shakespeare–not the real Shakespeare, Gaiman’s characterization of Shakespeare–talking about going through life as a writer (bolds included–this is from a graphic novel, after all):

I wonder… I wonder if it was worth it. Whatever happened to me in my life, happened to me as a writer of plays. I’d fall in love, or fall in lust. And at the height of my passion, I would think, “So this is how it feels,” and I would tie it up in pretty words.

I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else. My son died. And I was hurt; but I watched my hurt, and even relished it, a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss.

My heart was broken by my dark lady, and I wept, in my room, alone; but while I wept, somewhere inside I smiled. For I knew I could take my broken heart and place it on the stage of the Globe, and make the pit cry tears of their own.

And now… I am no longer young. My health is not good, and my daughter consorts with a lecherous ape, which her fancy amends to a gallant prince. My wife sleeps in her father’s bed, far from me; and she treats me like a foolish child.

And Prospero and Miranda, Caliban and Gonzalo, aethereal Ariel silent Antonio, all of them are more real to me than silly, wise Ben Jonson; Susanna and Judith; the good citizens of Stratford; the whores and oyster-women of London Town

What is it about fiction…

Listening to: “Fourth Time Around” – Bob Dylan

What is it about fiction that makes it infinitely more interesting than reality? Not just reading/watching/listening to it, but creating it, too?

Maybe it’s that it has a narrative; or that it celebrates the individual, and makes him holy; maybe it’s that there are always new rules to be bent and created; or that it gives one a sense of belonging to something larger; maybe it’s that in fiction, there is undoubtedly an intelligence to it all, the divine guiding hand of the author.

Maybe it’s that it’s after 2am, and I have a zit in my hairline, and it itches, and I’m going to wax philosophical all over your face.

I guess maybe growing up consuming so much fiction–books, plays, movies, TV shows, comics, and what-have-you–I always felt like my own story was bound to take off one day. That I was the protagonist of something, who would be inevitably and inexplicably lifted from the humdrum and given a mission, struck by epic tragedy, or made to believe in something unbelievable.

But no figure has risen to give me a quest, and no one has named me the chosen one, and no coherent narrative has taken shape. This isn’t a complaint, more a realization.

I guess it comes down to this: In fiction, there is a god. In real life, there is not. And if there is, he’s a really shitty writer. Knows nothing about structure.

So for now, I guess I’ll keep on consuming well-crafted fiction, while living out my meandering real life along the way.

Per usual, ol’ Neil Gaiman puts it best:

“Of course, fairy tales are transmissible. You can catch them, or be infected by them. They are the currency that we share with those who walked the world before ever we were here. (Telling stories to my children that I was, in turn, told by my parents and grandparents makes me feel part of something special and odd, part of the continuous stream of life itself.) My daughter Maddy, who was two when I wrote this for her, is eleven, and we still share stories, but they are now on television or films. We read the same books and talk about the, but I no longer read them to her, and even that was a poor replacement for telling her stories out of my head. I believe we owe it to each other to tell stories. It’s as close to a credo as I have or will, I suspect, ever get.”

Or, this from André Malraux:

“The great mystery is not that we should have been thrown down here at random between the profusion of matter and that of the stars; it is that from our very prison we should draw, from our own selves, images powerful enough to deny our nothingness”

Or Tim O’Brien:

“Yet even if it did happen–and maybe it did, anything’s possible–even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
That’s a true story that never happened.”

Aw hell, even some J.K. Rowling:

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Or how about Italo Calvino:

“If I were only a hand, a severed hand that grasps a pen and writes . . . Who would move this hand? The anonymous throng? The spirit of the times? The collective unconscious? I do not know. It is not in order to be the spokesman for something definable that I would like to erase myself. Only to transmit the writable that waits to be written, the tellable that nobody tells.”

And finally, from Philip Pullman (I’ve been rereading The Subtle Knife recently):

“Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn’t be human beings at all.”

*The above riot of quotations and accompanying author photos brought to you by yours truly’s rampant insomnia.

My grandfather

It’s funny, earlier today (while laid over at the Logan airport) I read in Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things: “We owe it to each other to tell stories.”

Tonight, my parents and I went to visit my grandpa in the nursing home where he’s recuperating from his latest foot infection. I hadn’t seen him since I was last home in July.

But this time when we visited him, on this miserably rainy November night, there was a wildness about him I’d never seen. Almost a joyous desperation. He looked more wasted away than I’d ever seen him, his hands skeletal and purple with blood clots. He almost immediately launched into a vicious bout of tale-telling–about his time as a lieutenant in World War II, about starting his own business after the war.

He seemed almost possessed by his memories. The narratives had little flow as he bounced from boast to unrelated fact to digression. He said he wants me to write a book about his life. I said that I don’t have the wherewithal to write a whole book. What I really meant is, I’m not patient enough to listen. And, that his stories aren’t the most interesting in the world (he spent most of the war in Long Island, after all).

But I (like my grandfather) digress. What I mean to say is, he had seemed to become suddenly and acutely aware of his own mortality. For him, it seems, he needs to tell stories to fling his legacy out into the future, to gather the jumbled threads of 87 years on Earth and weave them into a coherent, lasting something.

My grandfather knows that he is old, very old.

My mom suggested that he get a tape recorder to preserve all these stories–his hands are too arthritic to write–but I don’t think that’s what he wants. I think he wants someone to listen to him. A human thing, there at his knee, to hear what he has to say and to marvel in it as he marvels in himself.

Tonight, for the first time, I really saw grandpa as a person, flesh and blood and soul and not just diatribes and wrinkles. He’s old, and he’s frightened. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must be.

And he wants to tell stories. His stories.