I’ve been struggling for topics to blog about, but surely there can be no more chilling thought for a writer than people not wanting books even when they’re free. Someone posted, on a mystery mailing list I belong to, that she boxed up what I’ll presume were mystery novels, and placed them out in front of her home, labeled as free . . . and had no takers. This was in a small university town.
The story surprises me, because in our former neighborhood, where our back yard faced a community college parking lot, we had excellent luck putting things out in the driveway for free, including boxes of used books. Sometimes people took entire boxes rather than a book or two. Nearly everything we put out found a home, including an old sofa we’d acquired already well-used, which I was certain we’d wind up hauling to the dump. Ours wasn’t a busy street except during classes, when students parked there, so I have to assume it was sometimes students who took those items. Then again, my experience with that was ten years ago. Now everyone I see walking around has a cell phone stuck to one ear, and I’m lucky if they avoid colliding with me. Maybe they wouldn’t SEE the books, even with a big sign.
When I was a student, I would’ve browsed through any box of free books on offer, even though I had plenty of other reading that I should be doing instead, for school. My grandmother used to say that no one in our family could clean an attic, because we’d stop to read everything. (That was before bubble wrap, when we used newspaper to wrap fragile items.)
Which reminds me, I dreamed just last night about the car I drove as a student. I hadn’t thought about that car in years. It was a white 1964 Mercury Comet that had a lot of miles on it before I got it. The dream was a mini-nightmare, not because I found myself in that car, but because this creepy guy who’d just followed me out of a bank removed what I thought was a disguise — a wig, under which he had a shaved head — then tried to get me to give him a ride. I was suspicious of him, so first I told him that if I did that my dad would kill me. (I must’ve been a teenager in the dream, which explains the car.) He argued with me, but I got into my car and locked the doors. It isn’t the sort of dream that usually qualifies as a nightmare for me, but it woke me up, heart racing.
That first car had some real-life nightmarish qualities. One was its tendency to overheat if I drove it to a higher altitude. I love the mountains, so not being able to drive my first car to the mountains without it overheating frustrated me no end. As the car aged, it developed other idiosyncrasies. I think my dad and I were at one point the only two people on earth who knew how to start it, which involved pumping the gas pedal just the right number of times, then holding it down . . . oh well, I don’t remember the sequence now. It had other problems too, and I have to wonder now at my desire to drive the thing, but when you’re young I guess you just want to go. You don’t care what you put up with to do it.
That car’s most nightmarish problem was the front passenger door’s sticky latch. My parents paid for my gasoline on the condition that I drive my grandmother anywhere she wanted to go. One day the door didn’t catch, and it flew open when I made a turn. Grandma didn’t fall out, but that incident qualifies as more nightmarish than the dream that ratcheted up my heart rate last night.
What about you?
Do you rummage through boxes of free books whenever you see them?
What was your first car like?
Do different things scare you in dreams than in real life?
While watching The Ice Storm again for the fourth or fifth time recently, I was struck by how strangely prophetic the movie is when it opens with Tobey Maguire reading a Fantastic Four comic book on a train. Five years later, he starred in Spider-Man. I can’t help wondering if whoever cast him had been watching The Ice Storm and made that comic book superhero connection. It made me think how life is like that. One thing leads to another, and looking back it often seems to fit like pieces of an intricate puzzle into a perfect whole.
These are the kinds of connections that strike me after viewing movies a few times — or reading books more than once. Once I get to know a story, my focus changes and, if the depiction is sound, connections and inner workings start to reveal themselves. I see not only the primary theme, but layers of meaning, sometimes meaning no one ever intended. I like, so far, the fact that I know little about how movies are made. My lack of knowledge lets me keep the illusion alive even while I look deeper.
One of my favorite forms of interaction in movies is between humans and other animals. Horses in particular. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering the connection between horses and people throughout our shared history. But horses in movies seem significant to me because, in spite of the historical relationship, so few of us spend any time with horses today. Including me. I don’t know much about horses except that even though I’ve ridden them only three times in my life (and not very well), I love them, in real life as well as in movies and books. I ate up the Misty of Chincoteague series as a girl, and Airs Above the Ground started my idol worship of Mary Stewart’s books. When I first read The Lord of the Rings, as a teenager, I was almost as upset as Sam when Bill the pony had to be released before entering Moria. I’ve thought that if there is one tiny flaw in Peter Jackson’s movie verions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy it was that Shadowfax didn’t get more attention. He was bigger than life in the books. (But the movie version is so intense and rich that I can’t complain. I can only suggest that anyone who loves the story should also read the books.)
Maybe my fascination with horses is genetic. My mom grew up around horses. Her father traded them, and spent a lot of time at the racetrack. Her maternal grandfather, a Danish immigrant, was a rancher, and a few of her relations were cowboys, either the working kind or, more recently, the rodeo kind. My dad’s grandfather was a blacksmith. So yeah, horses must connect to my DNA somehow. Possibly to everyone’s, considering human history.
There is a special horse in the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, nonetheless. Each time I watch The Two Towers, I have to go back and play a particular scene over again. Perhaps you know it. Aragorn’s horse finds him washed up on a riverbank. The horse nudges him awake, and then kneels to help his injured rider mount. The relationship between horse and man hits me, there, every time. It’s just a movie, right? Well, a little research led me to the fact that Viggo Mortensen spent extra time with that horse during filming and even purchased the horse after finishing the movie. He went on to make his next movie, Hidalgo, with another horse named TJ, again spent lots of time getting close to the horse during filming, and again purchased the horse afterward. Old news for many fans, perhaps, but new and touching for me. I haven’t seen Hidalgo yet, but now I’ll have to.
My favorite movies are the ones with so much intricacy and detail that I can watch them over and over and see something new each time. I’m the same way with books, with poetry, with artwork of all kinds, including architecture. I like the appearance of simplicity, with complexity running deep within. I like infrastructure, lots of background and foundations we never see but sense are there. I like fine craftsmanship in all forms, and the drive to put one’s heart into one’s work. I’ve started to notice this chemistry in movies sometimes, a hint of how a cast and crew must have worked as a team, that remains as a very personal energy running through the finished product. I like to think that even what winds up on the cutting room floor has a part in that energy. That’s how the world is, after all, it’s full of interconnections and even interspecies cooperation, as well as competition, yet deceivingly simple on the surface — for all its obvious glory. The best fiction and the best artwork is, after all, a metaphor for life — at times even something beyond this life.
Which leads me to a final observation from those movies, one that led to an epiphany for me. It came to me the last time I watched The Return of the King. At the very end Frodo turns for a last glance at his friends, and his face transforms from a look of sorrow and grief to a combination of mischief, delight, anticipation, and near beatification — the same expression Galadriel wore when we last saw her a moment earlier. They remind me uncannily of accounts I’ve read of near-death experiences or of messages received from the other side by mediums. Earlier in the story Gandalf even spoke to Pippin about death, referring to it as a passage to a distant country, full of wonder and beauty.
This got me to thinking about why we love fiction, and Joseph Campbell’s perpetual examination of the power of myth.
Too often today fiction is criticized as a form of manipulation, and in many cases rightly so. We see the manipulation in advertising every day, even the most artistic of it. More and more product placement in TV, sensationalized — almost fictionalized — news rather than objective coverage, celebrity worship, so-called reality TV, politicians pumping themselves up or dragging others through the mud, and religious figures taking on exaggerated roles, promising to save us from hellfire of one flavor or another. Even in purer forms of fiction, in the quest to make money, publishers and writers pump out novels faster and faster, according to contracts and marketing ploys, seeking the next book that will be like the one that sold so well before. Stories seem to lose something in the process. They become pure entertainment and cleverly rather than artistically crafted, in a hurry, with little art remaining, little beneath the surface. A tree is cut down for something that remains on bookstore shelves for a couple of months and then is sold used for a penny at Amazon, or forgotten. The reader can begin to feel manipulated or addicted to the illusion and rapid consumption rather than edified by it.
In the midst of all this, why do we still love fiction? Why do we feel driven both to create and consume story? Is it a waste of time? Is it mere child’s play, the pastime of dreamers who need to get a grip on reality? Or is there something much deeper, an innate hunger or instinctive need at work?
If, as some philosophers surmise, and many near-death experiencers and mediums claim, this world is but an illusion, then is all fiction a metaphor for this great stage performance we call life? Plays within the play? Dreams within the dream? Is its purpose to teach us to see the difference between the smaller play and the bigger play, in order to prepare us to see beyond the greater play we act out in this life? (Which might mean Shakespeare’s Hamlet is holy scripture.) Is fiction a tool, an abstract ritual object we use to prepare us to see through that illusion and finally leave this world behind?
I wonder does that make directors, actors, publishers, and fiction writers the priests, handing out the keys to salvation in the form of story? Are theaters and libraries our true temples? Some of us would love to think so, I’m sure. What an ego pump that would be, for a few. What a power trip.
Or is the truth that each human saves himself, perhaps with the cooperation and companionship of his chosen cohorts? Does each of us take in each story and each experience and sift out those of his own choosing and discretion? Does each, in his own way, create his own story, and interpret it as he journeys through life, thus honing his ability to see past the illusion? Does each person make his own way to a deeper truth, progressing step by step toward the blazing dawn of enlightenment?
How does that come about? The best fiction, the best movies, draw us in so completely that if we let ourselves we can believe they’re real at the time we’re in the story. Is that the key to realizing how completely we can be drawn into an illusion, the key that helps us begin to see that it is possible this life, this world that seems so real and has such a hold on us, might possibly also be just a story, only an illusion? Does creating our own illusions show us how it’s done?
That’s my little epiphany, perhaps not meaningful to anyone but me. These things are personal. But I didn’t invent the possibility of the world as an illusion. Plato wrote about it in his Allegory of the Cave some 2,300 years ago, and it’s my understanding there are similar teachings in Hindu scriptures possibly more than 5,000 years old. It’s a thought probably older than that, painted on the walls of caves and leached into the earth from the ashes of ancient campfires, blown on the wind by their smoke, still inhaled each day by us. An ancient thought, as ancient perhaps as myth itself, and human self, which we explore today in the form of movies, plays, short stories and novels, through art, poetry, music — as well as through religion, history, and science. But it’s new for me to think from this perspective, and I don’t think I can ever see the fiction, fantasy, dreams, or creative endeavors I choose to partake in as a waste of time, from here on out. Not that I ever did. Some instinct in me drew me to them, and I answered. Perhaps all I’ve gained from my epiphany is an answer for those who would denigrate such as being a waste of time, of being a symptom of escaping reality or not being practical. It could be that carefully selecting my chosen forms of illusion is a way of taking greater control over my own life rather than escaping it. I can tell the “realists” who call me nothing but a dreamer to . . . watch a movie . . . read a story . . . write a poem. Get real by way of study of the dream within the dream.
Edited 12-21-2006. —BK
Susan, at Spinning, posed this question to writers, in her post on Reading & Writing, after she answered it on another blog. It’s a writing question on the surface only. It can apply to a lot of things people do, mostly creative. It only starts out in a context of writing. I suppose it has a lot to do with our ability to multi-task. I guess I tend to have more of a one-track mind.
When I’m writing fiction, I tend to read mostly nonfiction, often research related to what I’m writing, or a good book on writing, creativity, or personal growth. Anything that helps understand people and their motivations better is helpful to fiction writers, as well as anything that improves our story building skills and instincts—which isn’t necessarily limited to books on writing. I don’t go for the type of self-help books that offer quick fixes to personal problems. I classify most of those with fad diet books. But I’m drawn to books that help me understand human nature and the human experience on a deeper level.