On Patient Beginnings

The truth is that despite my love of language, I’m frightened of words. I try to say as few of them as possible. I write stories but can never tell them, because when I speak I mush and mumble the words to keep them as far away as I can. When I read, I reread sentences over and over to make sure I’m understanding. To make sure I’m understanding. To make sure I’m understanding. My mind catches on the words, fails to piece them together into ideas. I’ve always thought that by the time I finish reading a book, I’ve actually read it twice.

I think this is why I get so panicky about my beginnings. The moments when I have not yet lost your attention, when I must determine how to communicate a solid idea through a veil of prose. The literary handshake. The best are firm, assured, and bristling with knuckles. The worst are fishlike, with too many fingers. And most of my attempts, unfortunately, resemble the latter. When I sit down to write, hands to keyboard, I stumble out of the gate, juttering forward awkwardly as the words fall one over the top of the other, clattering out like an overturned recycling bin and making a horrible mess of what had looked like a beautiful outline. When I go back to revise, I cut and cut and cut until the paragraphs are nonsensical—a bare bones, poorly paced jumble of ideas.

Here’s why: I’m afraid of losing you.

(You’re not thinking of leaving, are you? Stay here. Sit. Be with me for a little while longer.)

It’s the fear of taking my time, trusting that you’re behind me as I chart a sure course. Ideas take so long to build, and I expect you to fall away before I’m done. Sometimes language can be a jumbling, unwieldy tool, and writing a task akin to making a mansion out of mud. The meaning slips away the more of it I use. But I want to communicate precisely what my idea is—all of it—fully formed and faceted. To drop it directly into your mind, a coin into a slot. These words are getting in the way.

So I rush. I skip over the small things. I forget to linger. I qualify. I capitulate. It gets messy. I just want to make sure you get it. Do you get it?

I’m too nice. That’s what it is. I’m sorry. I don’t want to intrude. “Use your words,” they say, which already feels like in itself a failure to communicate. As if I should have to use words. Each is one more burden I must lay on your shoulders. One more failure to communicate. Believe me, if I could, through osmosis or neurolink or magical ruby diadem, impart my exact meaning and intent without the inconvenience of forcing you to sit through these oblong, ungainly words, I would do so. Each one obfuscates. I lay it down to clear it away. Can you see my intent through this mire?

I think this is why I’ve always been so jealous of music.

• • •

Hi. Hello. My name is Connor, I’m a novelist from Minnesota, and this is The Quiet Post, a weekly column about the shape of things. You may have found it behind the third button of your shirt, or in a bucket of rainwater that was left out overnight. Our delivery system varies with the season. The easiest way to read it, though, is online. You can always find it here, at www.thequietpost.com, but you should take a look at our current electronic subscription offerings, too. Go ahead. I’ll wait for you to get back.

• • •

Now. What were we talking about? Beginnings. Right. We’ll get back to beginnings, don’t worry. I won’t leave you stranded in this bog of words for too long, but since this is our first issue and all, allow me to do a little housekeeping.

To start: what on earth do I mean by a “column about the shape of things?” That’s easy enough to answer. I’ve always found it useful to think about the world in terms of shapes. The shape of a story. The shape of a day. The shape of a living room. There’s a passage in Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa, where the Japanese rōnin Miyamoto Musashi goes off into the woods to live for a time—training, traveling, thinking, and looking up at the stars. At the end of his sojourn, Yoshikawa writes that “his soul was round.” The musician Jonathan Coulton released an album this past summer in which he uses “the shape of square things” as a metaphor for the morality of tech. When we give edges and form to abstract ideas, it becomes easier to talk about them—and easier to change them. To have a good soul is passive, a blessing from an outside force. To have a round soul communicates agency. A person could build one of those. In fact, take one step down from the poetic and you find the well-rounded individual, suggesting a person who has intentionally created the shape of themselves.

As both a writer and devourer of stories, I spend a lot of time thinking about the way their pieces fit together, and what makes a story feel the way Stephen King describes one of his wife’s poems, where “cables seemed to run through [it], tightening the lines until they almost hummed.” I want to pluck the strings, because the way we shape our stories is, of course, the way we shape our lives. Stories fashion the boundaries that tell us what our world looks like. To change that shape, we must change the stories we tell, but first we must locate their cables.

So here at The Quiet Post, we will spend some time every Monday in 2018 examining the shape of things—of books and movies, of current events and trivialities. We’ll pick each one up, turn it over in our hands to feel its form and lightness, and we’ll study it. We’ll linger. I started this project because I wanted somewhere quieter to go on the Internet. For myself, if no one else. The noise machine online gets too loud for me sometimes, so here we’ll cross the fence into the meadow and take some time to root around in the stories we tell and note how they shape us.

Especially if they contain a bit of magic. Excuse me. I probably should have mentioned. From the moment my mom read me Julie Andrews Edwards’ The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles when I was five, I’ve been hooked on genre fiction. I read that thing eight times between the ages of five and seven. I never got over the nasty crease I put in the cover when I stuffed it beneath my mattress late one night when my parents passed by outside my bedroom, checking to see if I was asleep. But lately I’ve been struggling to feel good spending so much time in other worlds when our own world looks the way it does. What does magic have to offer when such a monstrous man is sitting in the highest office in my country, whose words and actions have a measurable, violent effect on people I know? The Quiet Post is a celebration of shape and story, yes, but it is also, in some ways, a defense of it. A manifesto for magic. Because like so many in the literary community, I’ve been feeling pretty down lately, crushed under the burden of being Personally Responsible for fixing everything that’s wrong. I can’t. But I can do some things. I can offer this. It’s not lofty or world-changing. In fact, it’s deliberately designed to be small. We’re going to zero in, narrow our scope to the quiet, the hidden, and the patient structure of the world. Because hopefully in striking at the small things, we’ll hear an echo of the big ones.

So. Let’s begin. And to start with: beginnings.

• • •

If I can’t figure out my own beginnings, maybe I can take a look at how some of my favorites work. And this is one of them, from N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season:

“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.”

What I love about Jemisin’s writing is her surety. She never once doubts that you’re following along. In the first fourteen pages of her Hugo Award winning novel, she establishes and destroys an entire world, and the swiftness with which she does it serves to counterbalance the slow, steady way she writes about the “more interesting things” that, she says, we should actually be focusing on: people. But you won’t understand the people if you don’t understand the context in which they’ve been placed and the power systems that shape them, so fine, let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?

That rhetorical question is key, and the carefully crafted, conversational tone of Jemisin’s prose, combined with her masterful worldbuilding, serves to close the gap between the familiar and unfamiliar. The end of the world. Magic. Ancient grudges. Tolkien and Jordan write about these things with a historian’s distance, and for Jemisin they are all important, but they’re only interesting insofar as they can be humanized. If we are built by the power structures of our world, who are we when those structures end—violently? It’s telling that after being told we’re starting with the end of the world, the first ending we’re presented is not a planet-breaking one, but a personal one. An image of our protagonist, Essun, and her dead child. A window into what we will be spending time on after we get this apocalyptic business sorted out. How people treat each other. How they live with each other on a broken earth. How they care for each other, or don’t. From the very first lines, Jemisin makes it clear that magic in her story serves as a way into people. And far more interesting than the end of the world is what those people do to rebuild it.

Maybe this is part of what I find so important about genre fiction. That the function of magic in fantasy—from ancient myths to fairy tales to red-headed Edema Ruh—is to expose the shape of our lived experience. To allow us to come at it sideways. To “tell all the truth but tell it slant” as Emily Dickinson says. Magic exposes the humming cables.

• • •

Here’s another of my favorite beginnings, this one from The Magicians, by Lev Grossman:

“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”

In seven words, Grossman lays out the conflict Quentin will struggle with over the course of three whole books. It’s a clever reimagining of that old question about the tree and forest and someone being around to hear it. Like the tree, Quentin has become detached from the things he usually looks for to bestow meaning. The regard of others, for one, but he’s coming detached in another way, too.

As a kid, Quentin was obsessed with magic through a series of Narnia-esque books that have done what good stories do: shape how he views the world. But the stories that gave him meaning as a kid are now insufficient. He clings to his magic and nobody notices, leaving us to wonder whether the problem is the magic, Quentin himself, or the world. In these opening lines, Grossman tells us exactly what this series is going to be about: isolation, loneliness, and whether it is possible for a person to hold onto a sense of self worth when unmoored from their community and the stories they used to build their identity.

• • •

And finally: Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa, which I mentioned earlier. This book was a struggle to get through at times, and there are some…unfortunate characterization choices. But it’s filled with wonderful moments, and there are few books I’ve thought about more in the past few years. In particular, its brilliant opening lines:                                      

“Takezō lay among the corpses. There were thousands of them.”

Every book, at its core, is about throwing characters into a pit of monsters and watching them climb back out, but there’s something particularly compelling about a book that so decisively begins with a character already at the bedrock of the pit. The feelings of disorientation these lines evoke chart a path for the rest of the journey, in which we know Takezō, later called Musashi, is somehow going to have to climb up from lying among the few survivors on a battlefield strewn with the dead to being the single greatest rōnin in Japan.

What I find so compelling about these lines is how effectively they widen the frame. The first sentence is horrible enough, but narrow in scope. That the second sentence is even worse feels like a punch in the gut. The book equivalent of a jump cut. These are lines that take pleasure not in being devoid of hope (there is still, after all, an entire book ahead), but in showing you the light while simultaneously showing you that it will take a lifetime to reach it, and Takezō will have walked thousands of miles by the time he finds the peace he longs for. He knows how far he has to go when he wakes up. We, the readers, know this too. And all of us know that he’s going to do it anyway.

This is what all three of these beginnings do so strongly. They set up problems. Immediately and assuredly. The end of the world. Loneliness. The aftermath of a war. The blows are swift, the exposition ruthless. But finding the solutions will take until the final words of the story.

The film version of The Lord of the Rings opens with Galadriel’s voice: “The world is changed.” We spend the rest of the twelve-hour runtime watching our heroes struggle against this change, against a world draining of magic, of the old ways, of the departure of the elves and the wizards. This is what a good beginning does. Things have changed. Someone has made an irrevocable choice, and nothing will ever be the same. How will our characters deal with their problems? In The Fifth Season, Essun must rework her ideas of family and belonging against the backdrop of cataclysm. In The Magicians, Quentin must find meaning in magic and in himself. In Musashi, Takezō must work his way up from a field of corpses.

The stakes are set. The reader is with you and the choices your characters must make. From there, it’s only a matter of being patient.

If you enjoyed this, check out my fantasy story about a young wizard who hates the hero’s journey and decides to write a blog about it. Or follow me on Twitter.

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