Friday, September 09, 2005

THE ETERNAL VIAGRA OF THE SOUL

'Despondency makes one hanker after lives never led. Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or don't, will is pitted against will. "Admire me, for I am a metaphor." '

David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas



The above sentiment, especially the last two sentences, spoken by a character in David Mitchell's fantastic latest novel Cloud Atlas, pretty much sums up everything of worth (and I do mean everything) that was taught to me in countless Creative Writing and Screenwriting seminars over the years. Save yourself the money, read the sentences a couple of times, and start writing.

(Oh, and David Mitchell, in case you're wondering, is a phenomenal young novelist out of Britain. He spent a few years teaching in Hiroshima; his second novel, number9dream, is set in Japan. His first novel, Ghostwritten, is an astonishing book about a creature that passes through the centuries hopping in and out of bodies, eras, continents, and his latest novel is, well, something I can't quite figure out. He is a serious, literary fantasy writer, one who writes, sentence for sentence, the wittiest, most meaningful prose going. Check him out.)

I've often thought the same thoughts as Mitchell's imaginary chap. For a good many years, I did little more than read and (try to) write fiction. Lived and breathed the stuff. Imagined anything and everything around me as something suitable for a fictional story yet to be written.
It was, and is, a great way to live. Fiction puts meaning into life, which is inherently meaningless. And the love of words, the love of language, is a passion that can only get richer and fuller as one ages; it's an affair that never ends. It's the eternal viagara of the soul, I guess you'd call it. (Okay, maybe you wouldn't, but I would.)

However, the best thing I've learned during these past six years abroad is that books, and fiction, have a limit. When life got to be too much for me (which started at about, oh, two), I delved into books. Into stories. Living abroad, I've maintained my obsession with the printed word, but a great deal of my interest has shifted towards history and biography, of Asia in particular. Of Japan and Cambodia. Of evil men and great men. I never used to care much about the real world, but now I think about it a lot. That may sound strange, but for many years there was very little in the actual world that held my interest as much as the fictional worlds Stephen King or Clive Barker or John Irving or Sherwood Anderson or Joyce Carol Oates or Norman Mailer or Ed McBain or, occasionally, when I was brave, Faulkner.

It's funny. The other night, in one of my evening classes, I did a quick survey and found out that none of my students followed the news, on TV or in the paper. I started to give them (lighthearted) shit about it, until I stopped and thought. When I was their age -- sixteen and seventeen and twenty and twenty-one -- I didn't follow the news either. So what the fuck was I was fulminating about? (Full disclosure: I'm not sure what 'fulminating' means, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with blowing off steam, blabbing, whatever, and I needed an 'f' word for the alliteration to work.)

Now I like the balance -- sometimes ficiton, sometimes non-fiction.

But oh, that pull. That gravitational suction that fiction gives you. It takes you in and takes you away. You delve inside and dive inside and lose yourself and wonder if the real world can ever be as magical and rounded.

It can be, is what I've found out. Books like Cloud Atlas reaffirm your faith in fiction and your faith in life -- that it, too, could be, if you're lucky, as wondrous as the words on its pages.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don’t know how long you plan it or what inspires you, but you come out brilliant sometimes. 

Your students must be getting a lot from you. And they should, you have a lot to give.

Amanda said...

i was the same exact way when i studied abroad; i felt so isolated and alone. i read like everything in english that i could get my hands on

Le Will said...

I love mixing up fiction and non-fiction and usually have one of each on the go. For some reason, when I'm living abroad I delve into fiction that is set worlds away from where I am. I was obsessed with George Eliot and Jane Austin in Thailand, Tolstoy in Colombia and Carol Shields and Alice Munro in Guatemala. When I return to Canada from those places, I read any piece of historical or political non-fiction I can get my hands on. Taking the mind where the body is not...

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