This morning my husband sent me a book review by Edward Marriot of Alan Bennett’s novel The Uncommon Reader in which Her Royal Majesty, the queen of England, accidentally stumbles upon the pleasures of reading. It becomes an obsession with her, expanding her mind and heart as she ranges from novels to autobiographies, through histories and travel memoirs, and back again. I shall order the book immediately, if only to vicariously enjoy once more the startling thrill of discovering for the first time a magical portal, which can transport me instantaneously to other worlds. That miraculous gateway to Neverland is, of course, the book.
My childhood, though not horrific, was confusing and uncomfortable enough to make me want to disappear. I worked somewhat successfully to become invisible, but it wasn’t enough – reading however, exceeded my wildest dreams of delivery. Leaving my body behind, I exited into whatever adventure offered itself next. I fled down rabbit holes and flew off-world to a mysterious mushroom planet. I visited the hidden thirteen floors of city hotels and scuttled down secret stone passageways pressed against the warm heaving flanks of the Black Stallion. I stowed away on boats, became shipwrecked and helped build and elaborate mansion in the trees. The Hundred Acre Wood became my stomping ground – some days as Piglet, some days as Pooh and, on particularly pathetic days, as Eeyore.
It took me a long time- at least half of my adult life – to discover the joys of presence; of living in the moment. I had to learn that my physical life and my relationships with flesh and blood people offered rewards as rich and meaningful as the ones I experienced in those other worlds. When I did, I found that the lessons I’d learned in absentia were pure gold. It turned out that somehow along the way I had become a fairly good person, reasonably caring, effectively compassionate. Sometimes surprisingly wise words popped out of my mouth. They were the legacy of the literary worlds I’d so long inhabited – worlds where morality played itself out in story after story; where the chain of consequence resulting from any action, good or bad, was made excruciatingly obvious. And there were other more mundane benefits. Most of the time, watching Jeopardy I knew the answers – usually because P.D James or Laurie King, or Isak Dinesen, or Leo Tolstoy mentioned it in passing somewhere in a line of text…
You may have noticed that I did not distinguish in the above dissertation between people, events and places as real or imaginary. It’s because those places, those other worlds we walk into are real- they make our hearts pound, our tears flow, our breath sigh. According to research, our reactions to the events we imagine or dream frequently affect our bodies and psyches exactly the same way so-called real events do. Given the lag between any given happening and our perception of it, filtered through Heaven knows how many different kinds of nerves, synapses, neuron sheaths and processing units, who’s to know what’s real and what isn’t? As far as I’m concerned, all the places, characters and action I’ve read about are a real part of my life experience.
Writing has brought the lesson home. Writing, like reading, transports me elsewhere. I inhabit another world with its own tastes, smells, textures and taste. My characters surprise me until the words appear on the screen before me I often don’t know what they’ll do next. For instance, in my latest book Magdalene A.D. I didn’t know if Magdalene would make love with Jason or not. I talked it over with my women’s circle and tallied their votes. I asked my husband, the incurable romantic, what he thought. I drew up lists of the pros and cons. I simply could not decide what she should do.
In the end she decided for herself. When I sat down to write the scene something unexpected occurred and her decision evolved quite naturally out of the new set of circumstances. Afterwards, I understood my dilemma better- I wanted to please my (imaginary) readers. What would they expect? What would they want? In truth Magdalene had to decide what she wanted, which is the whole point of the book! So my dilemma and Magdalene’s decision both conformed to the intention and purpose underlying the entire project. Integrity was maintained and truth, i.e. reality, arose out of that alignment.
Yes, I’ll admit it – for me reality and truth are inextricably combined and no, I can’t define either of them. All I can say is they are grok-able. I can know them but not own them; feel them but not touch them. Believe in them and they vanish. Turn my back on them and I fall into a morass of lies and deceit. Reality and truth are the great mysteries and those mysteries as manifested in works of fiction saved my life, enriched it immeasurably and taught me the beginnings of wisdom.
So now- more than a decade into the new millennium, days after the end of the Mayan calendar, barely a week past the winter solstice night, which commemorated another trip around our star, I am taking stock , counting my blessings, giving thanks. So thank you my darling husband and beloved children, my sweet sweet circle sisters, all the brave women and stalwart men who live their lives with courage, heart and intelligence. And thank you Ratzo Riso; Danny from Tortilla Flat; Peter Pan; Jubal E. Harshaw, North Wind; Baba Yaga; Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore , Rabbit and Owl; Eloise; Merricat; Jane; Jo; Flora Poste; Mary Poppins; Madame Bovary; Sydney Carton; Anne of Green Gables; Mole, Ratty and Toad; Zelda; Rebecca; d’Artagnan; Brett Ashley … the list is endless .