Words that Stay

Words that Stay

Words have always been an important part of my life. First as a reader, then as a writer. There are many different forms of expression, but for me, words have always held the most power. Putting the right combination of words in the right order has the potential to touch someone, to make them laugh or cry. To give them courage. Even to change the way a person looks at life. For this reason, I’ve long been a collector of quotes. Some of my favorite quotes come from some of my favorite books (surprise, surprise). I’ve shared a few on Tumblr but I’d like to share them here too, because why not?

If you have never spent whole afternoons with burning ears and rumpled hair, forgetting the world around you over a book, forgetting cold and hunger-
If you have never read secretly under the bedclothes with a flashlight, because your father or mother or some other well-meaning person has switched off the lamp on the plausible ground that it was time to sleep because you had to get up so early-
If you have never wept bitter tears because a wonderful story has come to an end and you must take your leave of the characters with whom you have shared so many adventures, whom you have loved and admired, for whom you have hoped and feared, and without whose company life seems empty and meaningless-
If such things have not been part of your own experience, you probably won’t understand what Bastian did next.

-“The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende

I open with this one because it comes from my all-time favorite book. More than that, the reason it has stayed with me fifteen years or more is that this is a piece of a novel enumerating the very reasons I love to read. This author understands me. He understands why I’ve picked up his book to read, why I pick up every book I read, and what it means to get lost in a good tale. I’ve been the child sneaking a book under the covers with a flashlight, running to hide and dropping it on the floor when my parents come up the stairs to check if I’ve gone to bed properly. I’ve been the person who stayed up for just one more chapter when I have to leave on a trip early the next morning because I just can’t stand to go to sleep not knowing. And I’ve been the person who cried openly in a public place over a character’s death or a sad ending.

And in each and every case I’m proud to have done so. Because I’m not alone in my love for the written word.

After all, is it not the way we humans shape the universe, shape time itself? Do we not take the raw stuff of chaos and impose a beginning, middle, and end on it, like the simplest and most profound of folktales, to reflect the shapes of our own tiny lives? And if the physicists are right, that the physical world changes as it is observed, and we are its only known observers, then might we not be bending the entire chaotic universe, the eternal, ever-active Now to fit that familiar form?

If so, the universe, from the finest quantum dust to the widest vacuum spaces, does indeed have a shape. It begins “Once upon a time…”

-“Otherland: Sea of Silver Light” by Tad Williams

Moving deeper into my exploration of words, this quote gives shape to the way I feel about them. I didn’t actually like the end of this series, I found it disappointing. However, there are pieces of it stuck vividly in my memory. This quote, in particular, describes not only how I feel about writing, but what I do when I write. Quotes like this inspire me to create. How beautiful and magical the idea we can shape our universe with simple words constructed in the right order.

The twentieth century’s most honored writer, William Gass, once said in an interview: “Words are the supreme objects. They are minded things.”
And so they are. As pure and transcendent as any Idea which ever cast a shadow into Plato’s dark cave of our perceptions. But they are also pitfalls of deceit and misperception. Words bend our thinking to infinite paths of self-delusion, and the fact that we spend most of our mental lives in brain mansions built of words means that we lack the objectivity necessary to see the terrible distortion of reality which language brings…
You see, in the beginning was the Word. And the Word was made flesh in the weave of the human universe. And only the poet can expand this universe, finding shortcuts to new realities the way the Hawking drive tunnels under the barriers of Ensteinian space/time…
To be a true poet is to become God.

-“Hyperion” by Dan Simmons

Moving further along the evolution of words and the ability to string them together in a meaningful way, we come to this quote from a character who is (obviously) a writer himself. A poet, to be exact (but I think what he applies to poetry can apply to all writing). These are some heavy handed concepts (and this particular character IS quite arrogant). I’ve snipped a few of his high-horse details, but you get the gist. To write is to create. To form some world out of the void of your mind and give it shape. To set little lives running through it and to follow those lives and develop them into something of meaning for others who wish to observe your creation.

Now of course I don’t believe that being a writer is next to being God. But the feeling of writing something, of creating a world or writing a story that’s good, is a heady feeling. I’d imagine the author put a great deal of himself and his feelings into this character, as he certainly knows how to describe the deeper thought processes associated with writing. The diatribe on words is also something of a reminder; with power comes responsibility. As writers, pouring our souls into the worlds of our creation, it’s our job not only to entertain, but to fill those tales with thought-provoking meaning rather than meaningless self-delusion.

After a while, however, once I’d learned the trick of remembering things, I never had a moment’s boredom. Sometimes I would exercise my memory on my bedroom and, starting from a corner, make the round, noting every object I saw on the way. At first it was over in a minute or two. But each time I repeated the experience, it took a little longer. I made a point of visualizing every piece of furniture, and each article upon or in it, and then every detail of each article, and finally the details of the details, so to speak: a tiny dent or incrustation, or a chipped edge, and the exact grain and color of the woodwork. At the same time I forced myself to keep my inventory in mind from start to finish, in the right order and omitting no item. With the result that, after a few weeks, I could spend hours merely in listing the objects in my bedroom. I found that the more I thought, the more details, half-forgotten or malobserved, floated up from my memory. There seemed no end to them.
So I learned that even after a single day’s experience of the outside world a man could easily live a hundred years in prison. He’d have laid up enough memories never to be bored.

-“The Stranger” by Albert Camus

Coming back to the heart of the matter, here’s a fine example of a novel that not only makes you think, but changes the way you look at the world. “The Stranger” is a short novel in which a man is sentenced to death for killing in self-defense. Rather than being convicted for his crime, however, the people at his trial seem preoccupied with the fact that he hadn’t cried at his mother’s funeral just before the shooting. The point of the novel is to point out absurdity in the world around us, how we pick at tiny little details and choose to build our opinions and our narratives around them without considering the whole picture. In this, my favorite scene, the main character occupies his mind while in prison by playing a memory game.

I believe the translation I originally read worded it: “If a man has lived a single day, he could easily have enough memory to fill a hundred years.” Even this smaller part of the whole makes you stop and think about how memory works and what we carry around in our minds just from living our lives. I read this book as part of a class in high school, yet I’ve carried this quote with me ever since, and it’s something I think of often, memory and its relation to our life experience.

Bod said, “I want to see life. I want to hold it in my hands. I want to leave a footprint on the sand of a desert island. I want to play football with people. I want,” he said, and then he paused and he thought. “I want everything…”
Mistress Owens made no immediate reply. She stared up at him, and then she began to sing a song that Bod remembered, a song she used to sing him when he was a tiny thing, a song that she had used to lull him to sleep when he was small.
“Sleep my little babby-oh
Sleep until you waken
When you wake you’ll see the world
If I’m not mistaken…”
“You’re not,” whispered Bod. “And I shall.”
“Kiss a lover
Dance a measure
Find your name
And buried treasure…”
Then the last lines of the song came back to Mistress Owens, and she sang them to her son.
“Face your life
Its pain, its pleasure,
Leave no path untaken”
“Leave no path untaken,” repeated Bod. “A difficult challenge, but I can try my best.”

-“The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman

I’ve included this last quote (with another little snip) because it has the power to reduce me to tears (again) even without another complete read-through of the book. This is a shining example of a book inspiring one to do, or in this case to live. If I ever have half the skill and talent Neil Gaiman has at crafting this kind of story, I’ll consider myself a fortunate writer indeed.

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