There is something we don’t normally think about as writers: the fact that we hold lightning bolts in our hands. This Heaven’s-fire can light up the sky, dazzle, electrify, and inspire; but it can also lay waste and devastate. Consider: since the dawn of time, we humans have hungered for stories. We crouched around the fires, intent upon the words of the old one, who evoked for us places and people and deeds . . . wonders and terrors that we had not touched or tasted ourselves, but of which we partook through the magic of language and imagination.
We escape into stories. They transport us from our workaday lives to places where everything is more focused, usually more intense. The hardships and the triumphs are greater than ours. The colors are brighter, the passions are stronger, the resolutions more satisfying and meaningful. In stories, life makes much better sense. The wicked are punished. Virtue and perseverance are generally rewarded. Dreams come true — or if they do not, there is dignity and nobility in their not-coming-true.
Listen to anyone who loves a great book: “I felt I was there,” s/he says. “I want to go there.” “I want to live there.” “I didn’t want it to end.” Why are series books so popular from age to age? — because we never want it to end. We don’t want to come back from those places we love. We don’t want to say goodbye to those people.
This offering of an escape, a refuge, is a great service to readers. Sometimes it’s greater than we could possibly imagine. I was absolutely floored when a person — now a close friend — told me the story of how my book Dragonfly saved her life. That sounds like a ridiculously grandiose claim for me to make, and it would be, but for two reasons: 1.) it’s true, and 2.) the credit doesn’t belong to me. Dragonfly is not an “inspirational” book. It doesn’t have any “message” of encouragement, and the part that encouraged my friend isn’t a particularly encouraging part — in fact, it’s the book’s most tragic moment. But this person read it at precisely the time in life that she needed to read it. All the events of her life worked together — and yes, I believe that certainly God worked — through the medium or filter of this book, this scene — and this person was inspired to keep on living. She took one path instead of the other at a very, very dire crossroads in the darkest stretch of life. And she got to a place that was much better. Again, I had nothing to do with it. But God, working through her life’s circumstances and through something I left lying around out there in the world (the book) . . . saved a life. That’s an extreme example, but the point is, we never know. When the stories leave us, they have a life of their own. They’re like children in that sense. They’re made from parts of us — they have our blood in them — but they pass beyond our reach and our knowledge. They encounter people we never will. Tennyson wrote in The Princess: “Our echoes roll from soul to soul, / And grow for ever and for ever.”
All good and fine, right? Who wouldn’t want to be a writer? On the first day of class, I usually tell my writing students, “If you want to change the world, you’re studying the right thing.” But there is a grim side to it all.
Writing transports us into other worlds . . . wonderful, enchanting worlds. But think of the old stories in which people make forays into the realm of Faery. “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand-in-hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” Or in another poem, Goethe’s, the Elf-King comes and snatches away the child, and the child’s father is left holding a corpse. Faery is an alluring place, but humans who enter it do not come back — or if they do, so much time has passed in their own world that everyone they knew and loved is either very old or long dead.
There is a cost to visiting elfland. The song of the Sirens lures sailors to their deaths. And are not these wonderful and well-loved books Faery to us? Take note of this next sentence, because it’s the gist of this lengthy exposition — it’s the one-line summary of this posting:
I have been as tormented by stories as by anything “real” in life.
Perhaps . . . no, probably . . . no, definitely — moreso. The joy of a story that gets into our hearts is a savage joy. A cruel joy. It’s devastating, and we have no defense against it.
First example: Watership Down. In fifth grade, I remember crying and crying when I finished reading it. The world for me had changed, not entirely in a good way. I had loved the book so much, and now it was over, and I knew that I might re-read it later in life, but that I’d never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. And I knew that, although I’d carry the book around in my heart forever, I couldn’t live inside the book. I’d have to go to school, grow up, work, etc. — those perfect moments of traveling with Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, et al. were not where the bulk of my life would lie.
That’s the reality: beauty — true and perfect beauty — makes us miserable. We encounter it, but it’s like the food in those all-you-can eat buffet restaurants: we can’t take it with us. And we have to leave; we always have to leave.
Second example: The Thorn Birds. Colleen McCullough published the book in 1977. In 1983 it was made into the TV miniseries, which made history for being second only to Roots in popularity. I first experienced it as the miniseries, which captivated me so much that I read the book. I was in high school. The story sent me into the wildest delight and worst agony I’d ever known. I was head-over-heels in love with Meggie Cleary. Not Rachel Ward who played her, but the character, Meggie. I wanted to live on Drogheda in the Australian Outback. I wanted to raise sheep. The story, along with the Mel Gibson / Sissy Spacek film The River, affected the way I thought — I saw rural, agricultural life as sacred, pure, and to be desired above all else. These stories affected the way I dressed. I had some hand-me-down clothes from my uncle, who was a farmer. I insisted on wearing these gray and khaki-colored, oversized shirts, pants, and floppy fedora hats even when I went away to college in the Chicago area. Stories — fiction — had given me an ideal. Or perhaps they had helped me to realize my innate ideals; I was a country boy, so country life was my birthright.
I bring this up now because recently I’ve been revisiting the film version of The Thorn Birds on DVD, and it’s amazing how it’s all come back to me in its grandeur, wonder, and searing pain. I’m in high school again. It’s astonishing how these scenes are etched into my mind and heart — it’s like I’ve never been away, and yet all these years have gone by in the interim. I’m still in love with Meggie Cleary. I still want to put on a fedora and go herd sheep. My friend S.F. will remember me saying back in college that I wanted the theme music of The Thorn Birds to be played at my wedding and my funeral. I still want that.
Oh, the power of these stories! And they do, as I said earlier, have their own life. I read an interview with Colleen McCullough, and she said she didn’t like the film version of The Thorn Birds at all — she said she didn’t like anything about it. Rachel Ward has said that she didn’t enjoy filming it at all, even though she met her husband during the making of it. So the woman who created the story and the woman who gave Meggie a face both disliked this film version that enchanted me. The story cut through — it has its life. It is what it is, and it’s bigger than the sum of everyone who brought it to us, including the author herself.
Incidentally, Rachel Ward is about 50 now. She’s an attractive 50-year-old, but that face that was Meggie in 1983 exists now only in pixels and perhaps on celluloid somewhere. But it does still exist there, and it’s as powerful today as it was then. I challenge any man to look at that face, to hear that soft voice with its accent, and not be thoroughly miserable.
And the book goes on — and all the great books go on, changing the world in each new generation, making a difference in the life of every unsuspecting reader who stumbles upon them. “What’s this about?” I asked my dad, picking up a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. “Oh, it’s a long, involved story about a ring,” he said. “Everyone wants the ring.” “Hmm,” I said — and the rest is history.
So get out there, writer, and fulfill your sacred task. Save lives, but know that you will also break hearts. But . . . I guess we readers want that, don’t we? It’s like that legend that gives The Thorn Birds its title: the bird that, all its life, seeks a long, sharp thorn; and finding it, the bird impales itself on the thorn and dies. But dying, it sings a song of unimaginable beauty . . . “and all the world stills to listen. And God in His Heaven smiles.”