Be Not Afeard

I will confess, I am no longer in love with drafts. Early in my writing life, I used to love that heady feeling, used to throw myself into drafts with reckless glee. Now I distrust them, or maybe I distrust myself. I know they contain some bright sparks that will remain, but I also know that there will be other bits that will mislead me into thinking they’re the story, embodied, when they’re nothing of the kind. Or at least, not yet. These days, I find myself wanting only to be finished with a draft so I can begin to do the real work of revision.

Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices is one of those books on craft that I keep on my shelf to refer to from time to time, when I need to focus on a work in progress and am in danger of being distracted, or when my writing seems to be flattening out and I’m losing confidence in my ability to plow through. All of which is likely to happen in the middle of a draft.

That’s when I need to be reminded of what matters to me about this work I’m struggling to find words for, and why it bubbled up for me in the first place. Only I’m not ready to show the work in question to anyone yet. It feels too fragile, too easily capable of being questioned to pieces. But look. Pullman’s telling me exactly what I need to hear right now.

It knows very firmly what it wants to be, even though it isn’t very articulate yet. It’ll go easily in this direction and very firmly resist going in that, but I won’t know why; I just have to shrug and say “OK–you’re the boss.” And this is the point where responsibility takes the form of service. Not servitude; not shameful toil mercilessly exacted; but service, freely and fairly entered into. This service is a voluntary and honourable thing: when I say I am the servant of the story I say it with pride.

So there. I have to remind myself that this business of letting an idea in and finding the way to express it isn’t about me. It’s about serving the story. How many times do I have to learn and relearn what it takes to be a good servant? An infinite number, it seems. Service, free and fair, a “voluntary and honourable thing.” Better yet, later in that chapter, there’s this:

Art, whatever kind of art it is, is like the mysterious music described in the words of the greatest writer of all, the “sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” To bear the responsibility of giving delight and hurting not is one of the greatest privileges a human being can have….

Those quoted words, from Caliban in The Tempest shine a light for me that Pullman might not intend, coming as they do from a character whose very being is fraught with torment, who has been interpreted and reinterpreted across borders of time and race and politics. As Marcos Gonsalez writes:

Shakespeare was a man of his time, a worldly man. Molding a character through the writings and images and culture he lived in, Shakespeare put down on paper a composite of Africa, of Asia, of the Americas, and his Prospero boldly affirms the authority over such a composition near the play’s end about Caliban, “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” though all these things of darkness in the world he could never acknowledge his, because they never were his to begin with.

Caliban was never Shakespeare’s creation.

Caliban is ours.

So yes, I too take those words of Caliban’s. In making them mine, I, a brown woman, inheritor of a fractured history–I give myself permission to “be not afeard,” to listen for the “sounds and sweet airs.”

“…things in the water that had been disturbed…”

IMG_2144The year 2017 had its hellish moments. Well, quite a few of them. But it did bring the new Philip Pullman book, and for that I am so very grateful. As I began reading, I felt I was back in a lovely, familiar world–even though, within pages, I had to be ready to wage pitched battle against the forces of evil.

How much more timely could this book have been, with its epic battle for free speech and its commentary on the evolution of totalitarian regimes? The world in this companion to His Dark Materials is a broken one, and in that way it’s like our own. We see it through the prism of Pullman’s alternate Oxford–less alternate than the one in the trilogy. Pull back the coal silk tarp and you find climate change, the power of corruption, sexual assault, the subversion of democratic institutions, and more. We see it all through the eyes of an under-the-radar witness, eleven-year-old Malcolm. Restless, curious, but also honest and capable, he’s an unlikely hero. But he’s not alone; he’s part of a loving community, and somehow it seems perfectly reasonable that the fate of the world might rest in his hands. And yet he’s just a kid, leaping into perils he can’t yet begin to imagine.

When Malcolm goes around town spreading the word that the big storm is coming, this is what we read:

Then, leaning against the wind, with Asta tucked tight into his breast, he fought his way onto the bridge and looked down at the racing water. He remembered what Coram Van Texel had said: there were things in the water that had been disturbed, and things in the sky too.

A lovely review from Waterstones:

In our real world, too, we see plenty of “things in the water that had been disturbed.” And we’re engaged in similar battles. As the book unfolded, I was struck by how  Pullman renders as sacred the right to be governed by reason.

And then there’s Lyra, just a baby. What a tough job it is to show character in a baby who can’t yet talk! Pullman does this in clear, luminous prose–the trademark daemons don’t hurt either.

Lyra had been yelling as Alice washed her and put a clean dry nappy on her, but it was a shout of general anger rather than distress. Her little daemon, who had been a very disheveled rat, became a miniature bulldog and joined in the row till Alice’s greyhound daemon picked him up and shook him, which startled the child into outraged silence.

Pointed and unafraid, The Book of Dust, in an odd, indirect way, gave me hope.

Barbie Gets a Hijab and Other Good News

In the midst of the world spiraling into chaos, Christina Brinkley’s New Yorker article on the new Barbie made me smile.

And in the good news department, the young people’s climate change lawsuit is moving forward. There’s a story for our time, taking shape in the real world.

In another space, the kind that exists in real time but places the mind somewhere between reality and story, I am revising like a maniac. This is necessary in practical terms, on account of the project at hand that calls for manic revising. In the weird world of what we call writing process for lack of any better term, it leaves me exhausted while simultaneously tapping unknown reserves of enthusiasm and energy.

IMG_2144But in between bursts of revision, I’m reading Philip Pullman’s glorious new book, The Book of Dust #1: La Belle Sauvage. It’s right there on the little rug next to my treadmill desk, where I can snatch it up and indulge as needed. At the moment, the hard part is putting it down. It will likely go on my rereading list in the future. Pullman’s fictional world at once closes in on human frailties and offers hope in the form of its smallest, most seemingly instinctive acts of empathy.