Reading whilst writing is like nutrition. You know your style will be affected by what you read. Even a vise-like grip on your intended voice will change, at least a little. So you have to read the right things, fuel yourself properly, to get what you want out of yourself.
I wanted to write lyrically. I finished rereading Name of the Rose and began prowling my shelves. A bunch of the free stuff I’ve received was too spare. Not YA but it might as well have been. Tried a few chapters of Druids, by Morgan Llywellyn, because I read it in fifth grade and remembered with amusement–though I was so outraged at the time!–arguing in the evangelical South against a ridiculously Judeo-Christian slideshow (one of the ancient ones with a cassette tape that beeped when you had to click “forward” on the carousel) about the Roman incursion into Gaul. She is not lyrical either, though. Dirt Music–too modern. I do not wish to read of websites. Wrath & the Dawn--unread, so blessedly not a reread, but too spare, still. Refiner’s Fire? Remembered too well. But something else by him, perhaps, something more distant, so as not to keep returning too quickly to the same people.
I won a prize the last time I read this. I never finished it–got wrapped up in my own story. And though I read it more recently than Refiner’s Fire, more of this slipped away in memory. More so even than Winter’s Tale, still more distant. I read this, oh, a decade ago? But still it feels–do not chastise me; I am allowed to sound written here if nowhere else–like you’re the maypole and he’s wrapping the ribbons around you with words. Delicious.
“Is nothing sacred?”
No. Nothing is. Because once you claim sanctity for it, you remove the capacity to doubt it, to question it. And you should always doubt. Always question.
Name of the Rose is more relevant now than when I first read it years ago. Now, between trigger warnings, comedic no-man’s-lands and actual belief in thinly-veiled paraphrases of “the simple must not speak,” it is more powerful. I don’t know how it felt in 1980 Italy or 1983 America. But it’s damned relevant now. Go read it.
(Seriously. Even if you’ve no interest in historical fiction. Even if you just think Sherlock is hot, you’ll still gain from this book. In spades.)
Once, my dad and I pulled over to the side of the road on the way up the Beartooths. He had just driven thousands of miles to my geology station and we were going to make a roadtrip of our return. The sun was coming out from behind stormclouds and I was still in that foggy phase of transition between being in this cut-off fantasyland of people only my age, shacked up in tin cabins in the middle of nowhere, and the return to the “real” world, where I had a family and a history and obligations. We got out to take pictures of the suddenly-orange mountains catching fire as the sun clawed its way free from the storm. Bright pink flowers I recognized as fireweed lit up the edge of the road and I had this moment of intense dissonance: I knew the name of those flowers because I had played SimPark religiously for a year or two as a kid, back in my home where my dad too had lived, on the other side of the country, with this whole life path constructed. Toward which I strove.
And here I was on the side of this mountain, coming back from months of geology study of all things, and Dad had a big hat on whose purchase I could recall, from a place whose name I could articulate. But neither the person who stood in that store listening to Dad talk about the hat years ago, or the girl who’d studied non-science so hard, or the woman who’d cracked jokes about dolomite with a bunch of one-time strangers in the Rockies, seemed to have anything to do with this person who stood at the edge of the fireweed aiming a camera at the mountains. Nothing at all. It was like someone was stringing together a necklace with a pearl and then a feather and then a lump of rock with a hole through it. None of these people had anything in common with each other, or with the feel of the boots on my feet or the camera in my hand. I felt its buttons, its strap. It was foreign. I hadn’t planned for it. For any of it.
And then Dad said to get back in the car, to hurry up to the top of the pass while it was clear. And I snapped back, and spoke phrases I knew were mine.
That still happens. Sometimes it’s with my husband, sleeping as I stare at him and think, “how did I shake the kaleidoscope of me into the right patterns, pleasing patterns, often enough to arrange for you to be here?” Sleeping, unconscious, vulnerable, at my side. Sometimes it’s when I have to remind myself to apply a filter–“you have shared worries of this level with this person; you must ask after them now, and you can share a little, but not display concerns too personal; they will flee.” It’s a reminder. A mantle I have to remember to take off the wall and put on, before going out into a series of expectations and pre-constructed notions. Out into life.
These dissonances are most useful when they allow me to look at something painful without being hurt by it. Memories of Japan. Someone’s loving paean to their parents on social media. I can look at a weeaboo having a gushing japanophilic moment and think, with clinical distance, “usually I resent this in you, however irrationally, because some people in the country whose praises you sing let me be assaulted and only watched while it happened.” Or I’ll read a post claiming superlative status for one’s parents and think, “perhaps they were the best for you. Mine rescued me, didn’t warp me, knew more than most others and weren’t abusive in their knowledge. And they deserve the health denied them; the health yours have.”
Usually, though, these dissonances are not so instructive. Nor do they last long enough to become so. It’s just a moment of the clothes on your body, the schedule on your calendar, the texts coming into your phone seeming to belong to other people, far away. People who are strung together of sensible parts, in a pattern of which others can make sense. Red, yellow, blue. Primary colors, of which all else is made. Not the middling in-betweens that paint the roadsides of mountain passes.
Then you blink and shake your head, and you remember there are only really in-betweens anyway, ever. And you carry on with your day.
Okay so there are two or three of you who read this regularly. You, and a bunch of bot handlers maybe if they get bored and check their logs. But you, bot handlers, you need to read this too. All of you. Even the people who come poking around here looking for the fic talk I don’t do much.
Because you will spend your life, if you are lucky, treasuring such remarks as these. You will mourn the passing of those who shared them with you–whether they die or forget you; whether they close up like clams or obliterate the wisdom they worked so hard for with some mindless fug lifted from someone else’s agenda.
But these are written down. This guy interviewed someone who said them and wrote them down for us. Go read them.
On New Year’s, long after midnight, my dad brought out his Johnny Carson DVDs and started showing us clips. We were exhausted. It was almost 3AM. But he kept going. Never whole shows, just bits and pieces…things he remembered and could find. I stayed awake because I see him so rarely it would be unfair to sleep, to beg off. New Year’s, anyway, makes me sad. Even happily married, it marks a passage of time, and there are too many ailing people in my life for that not to hurt. So I stayed up. Some of the guests I knew, some I very much did not. There was no pattern to the clips he sought–this person, that person, this bit. The change in sets, outfits, lighting, over the years. When at last we all tottered off to bed I lay away looking at the ceiling thinking that Dad’s memory was the pattern. His loyalty was the latchkey. Carson was the keeper of his past and here, at last, technology had delivered his past to him in a way he could call up an access at will. By participating in the viewing of Carson’s show over decades, my dad had tied memories to it that he could regain, watching it again. “During this one your mother…” “My dad always loved this guy…” “I saw this on a base in…” That. He gets that back.
I’m saying this because if we are to have a keeper–if anyone can wrangle our divergent views and experiences into a space to which we will want to return, when we are old and trying to connect with our sad daughters on rainy New Year’s dawns–I want it to be Stephen Colbert. Anyone who is willing to strip themselves bare for the good of people they will never ever meet like that gets my vote for trying to draw the scattered staticky blips of our lifetimes into a sort of linear progression that it makes sense to look back at. To mourn, yes, but also to laugh. At 3AM on New Year’s my dad was laughing so hard tears ran down his face. He was laughing.