Don’t do that again!

An author I’m following on Twitter asked a question a couple of days ago. She posted a photo of a Roman aqueduct in France, which features in her book. She admitted to walking across it once when she was much younger, not considering the danger she put herself in. This was her question:

What did you do as a youngster that you would never dream of doing now?

I guess we all have things we could confess, but perhaps with some filters, because we wouldn’t want strangers to know our most humiliating moments. The post reminded me of a game two professors played in the novel Changing Places by David Lodge. Humiliation is played by making a list of major works you haven’t read, which was problematic in the novel. Changing Places was about a British and an American professor who switched jobs for six months. I think they were both teaching literature, so they should of course be familiar with all the classics. You score points in the game if you have a book on your list the others don’t have. You basically have to risk humiliation, and in this book, serious trouble at work. I think the American professor won when he admitted to not having read Hamlet.

In the case of proving courage as a youngster, doing something wild may ensure victory in a game or comparison of stories, but whether the action was courageous (reflected) or reckless (thoughtless) could be debated. To some being reckless is what such a game should be all about, but a few years later, would you reveal the least favourable side of you, even if it happened in your youth? I think many would apply their strongest filter some years later.

little rock
This is how Little Rock is presented on Norwegian Wikipedia. I had some nice walks there as well.
Wikimedia Commons

I haven’t done anything outrageous, but I have done some things I probably shouldn’t have. One time was in Little Rock, Arkansas, where I stayed for 1,5 years many years ago. I think it was my sister-in-law who dropped me off at a museum I wanted to visit, but I decided it probably wasn’t that hard to find my way to the university, which is where I was going after the museum. US cities are pretty easy to navigate with their grid pattern, right? I have a long history with maps, and it’s not a good one. I got lost of course. I asked several people for direction, which didn’t improve my situation. I walked around in the brutal summer sun without water or anything to boost my energy, and felt my will disappear with my decreasing blood sugar. My other sister-in-law just happened to pass in her car, and it turned out I had walked into a part of town you really don’t want to be in.

I didn’t seem to have learned, because a few weeks later I decided to walk home from the university. Getting lost wasn’t the problem. I had taken the bus every day for a long time, so I was quite familiar with the route. It was just a three mile walk, but it was still incredibly hot. Every day was the same in this place. The weather was nice and sunny, but always too hot to enjoy. A bottle of water would have been helpful, but I didn’t bring one of course. I made it back to the house safely, but I wasn’t feeling good at all.

The list of things not to do again has grown since then. I have more things to recall than I care for, but I won’t bother you with details. I have grown more conservative over the years, and I’m quite content now with a life where nothing much happens. I prefer making my characters brave, but there is a story in almost everything, also in feeling helpless in a big, strange city. My stay there wasn’t all bad. I also brought some good memories with me when I left.

The insanity of writing

A book editor I’m following on Twitter had a question for her followers yesterday, one I’ve reflected on myself from time to time.

I’m not sure I ever figured out why I write. There is the Maya Angelou quote I have as my tagline. It’s painful having a story inside me without being able to tell anyone. It’s hard to explain to outsiders why I keep doing what may look like insanity to them. Writing a book, getting it published, and achieving success is hard, as Keidi Keating pointed out, so why do we put ourselves through it? 

Personally, I find “I’ll show them” to be a great motivator. I used to get sad when people labelled me, or assumed things about me, but I have replaced that with a motivation to prove them wrong. It’s not just about them, but more about what I want to do. I don’t want limitations to stop me. I keep most of my personal life outside the garret, as that isn’t the reason people read my blog, but it’s no secret that life with nonverbal learning disability (NLD/NVLD) hasn’t been all fun. This disability isn’t fully understood yet, and there is some disagreement about causes, but Byron Rourke’s hypothesis from the late 1980’s (built on Myklebust’s one from the 1960’s) is accepted. He referred to it as white matter (brain tissue that transports messages), right hemisphere deficit. It isn’t quite that simple, but my point is that I’m motivated to succeed where people assume I can’t.

I’d be lying if I said that writing was about art and nothing else, that I had no interest in making money. There is an element of both, because I do dream about being able to make a living from writing. It may look like borderline mental illness to outsiders. After all, we continue doing something that hurts us. Some find writing to be easy, but it isn’t to me. I have long periods when it’s a lot of fun, but it also requires discipline, and sometimes the struggles for a solution to a particular problem can be torture. Considering some of the ridiculous diagnoses the American Psychiatric Assocoation has added to DSM, perhaps writing should be there as well?

I’m just joking of course. This is my preferred method of communication, and it seems to be necessary for thinking. I find many ideas to be elusive, but when I start writing, I’m able to identify and harvest them in a way I couldn’t before. Still, when I think about it, it doesn’t make sense that so many of us put ourselves through this.

I read a list once of successful novels that almost didn’t get published, and one of my favourite children’s novels was on it, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. She tried no less than 26 publishers before Ariel Books accepted it in 1962. I think many assumed children wouldn’t be able to understand the concept of evil. I believe J. K. Rowling also had some difficulties in convincing the publishers, and one of the objections to Harry Potter was the length of the manuscript. I think the last book in the series was close to 200 000 words, so young readers clearly didn’t feel intimidated by the thick book. On the contrary, whether readers are young or old, they don’t want their favourite books to end.

One of my local book shops had this rather strange gimmick. I’m not sure I’d buy a book with so little to go on, but authors are in a way in that situation, because how do we get publishers’ attention? How do we get a date with an editor?

I’m glad someone was willing to take a chance on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and A Wrinkle in Time. It makes me wonder how many good stories we never hear about, because someone didn’t think the target audience would accept them. I didn’t find it easy writing the first book in my series, and I never really thought about what would happen once it was completed. The real struggle is being told it’s not good enough, or worse, being rejected without any hint of what went wrong.

We don’t have agents in Norway, or rather, they have a different function. Oslo Literary Agency is the biggest one, but it’s owned by one of the old, traditional publishers. It’s meant for translated authors trying to reach an international audience. Norwegian publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, which means they read a lot of them. I’m not sure which system is more likely to get the right people to read your mansucript. Personally, I like the idea of talking to the publisher directly. The manuscript I’m going to show them isn’t the final version, so I like the idea of a certain cooperation between author and publisher, but perhaps that’s a naive attitude.

Maybe the statement I ended my comment with on Twitter is the best reason for writing: Life is more when I write.

Living in a book

Netflix is my Star Trek channel. I watch Star Trek when there is nothing else to watch, which is pretty much all the time. I have watched all the series multiple times, but I still think the original one is the best. I watched the episode A Piece of the Action last night, which is great comedy in my opinion.

A Federation ship had visited this planet a century before Enterprise, and left behind a book. The world Kirk, Spock, and McCoy came to looked like Chicago in the 1920’s with a full blown mafiawar. The reason was a book left behind 100 years earlier, Chicago Mobs of the Twenties. The Enterprise crew tried to straighten this out, and it was hilarious hearing Spock and Kirk trying to speak old gangster slang.

It made me think, what books would I want to live in? Quite a few. I read a lot of dystopia, but dystopia is pretty much current affairs these days, so I’m not dreaming of more of that. The Queen would have been screaming “off with his head” constantly, but Alice in Wonderland would have been a fascinating experience. One of my favourite girls from childhood was definitely Anne of Green Gables, not to forget the March sisters in Little Women.

When Goodreads ask this question, many answer their favourite book. Series like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Percy Jackson, and The Hunger Games are often high up on the list. Some answer Pride & Prejudice, which makes more sense, but in the real world none of the women in Jane Austen’s novels would have had good lives. I suppose the idea is to dream of something better than what we have, and in that context I wouldn’t mind owning Pemberley. Being a servant in those days of course wouldn’t have been the same. Now that I think about it, maybe it does make sense to want to live in a dystopic novel. After all, the cheracters in the book changed their world, while many today feel powerless.

It’s a ridiculus series and character, but I’ve always been fascinated by Wonko the Sane from the Douglas Adams book So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. Nothing makes sense anyway, so why not live in that totally bonkers world? Apart from that I really like some of the worlds and characters Ursula Le Guin, Sheri Tepper, Cynthia Voigt, Diana Wynne Jones, C. J. Cherryh, Joan Vinge, Andre Norton/Mercedes Lackey, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and many others have created. I’m not one of those you find on Twitter who constantly claim that the only interesting people are those who do nothing but read, but I do agree with them that life would be a lot less interesting without books. Life outside isn’t always that great, and I’d find it dystopic to be forced to cope without those other worlds. .

Finally, a comment regarding the photos. I grew up in a town with a lot of history, but there didn’t seem to be an interest in preserving anything. There are some very nice residential areas with houses from around 1900-1930, but nothing much older than that. The sound between my town and the island Karmøy was also at the centre of the development during Viking age that led to Norway becoming one kingdom. In fact, the name Norway comes from that sound, but there’s been no excavations, and nothing has been found. My point is that, although it was a very dystopic time, I find the past fascinating. I think back on the time my mother grew up in. She was born in 1940, and I’m about to create a character that was born 10-15 years earlier.

The bedroom at the museum, and the remnant of an old street, are probably from that time period. I can see myself living there a generation before I was born. It would have been nice to change history, also on a small scale.

I’m rebuilding my world

Winnie the Pooh book cover.I love the characters in this book, but as a grownup I can also see how harmful growing up can be.
I love the characters in this book, but as a grownup I can also see how harmful growing up can be.

Whether it’s books or films I like to guide my daughter towards good stories. I was struggling with motivation as a child, and didn’t read much the first seven years of school. That just wasn’t a priority to me. I’m trying to lead my daughter towards stories I think she’ll be likely to stay with, and Neil Gaiman is her favourite at the moment..

We both like some of the books the critics recommend, but we also know it’s irrelevant what others think about the books and films. I watch or read books before I recommend them, and I think I’ll rewatch Goodbye Christopher Robin with her soon. I watched it alone last night, and it was quite sad. It makes me see Winnie the Pooh in a completely new light. Alan Alexander Milne didn’t really come back from WW I. I don’t know how close the film is to reality, but that’s what his wife said it in the film. Milne had post-traumatic stress and didn’t want to write the humorous stories his agent wanted. He wanted to write about how pointless the war had been, but then he developed Winnie the Pooh together with his son, Christopher Robin, and that changed everything.

Some have suggested that Milne gave the characters in Winnie the Pooh different psychological disorders, but this article in The Mighty gives another possible explanation. Milne wrote the book to his son, and the author of this article thinks it may have been a father’s attempt to explain post-traumatic stress to his son. Winnie the Pooh is a great story, but in this interpretation it’s also a book about what war does to people. I like this way of looking at it, because it tells us it’s ok to be sad, and to dream, and to do all the things men are not supposed to do. People hardly talk about it today; imagine how it was a hundred years ago.

The article in the Mighty referred to the film Christopher Robin starring Ewan McGregor, which was also a good film, but as much as I like stories warning me against losing my childhood, I wonder if Mary Poppins Returns would have been adequate. Those two films are quite similar. There’s a dark, tragic side to Winnie the Pooh. A. A. Milne didn’t really come back from the war, and maybe his son didn’t have the childhood he wanted. Perhaps he had to pay for the war as well?

Milne wrote two books about the characters in the Hundred Acre Wood, and this is how the story ended:

So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

Today I can’t help wondering if Christopher should have been allowed to play in the Hundred Acre Wood alone with Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and the other characters. He shouldn’t have had to share it with the world. I think I would have felt better about it if the book wasn’t someone’s stolen childhood, but the loss of a childhood has always affected me deeply. I suppose that’s why I still think about the stories C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, and J. M. Barrie wrote. It would be nice if growing up didn’t mean giving up, but there are too many people out there taking all the joy out of life. Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh should be our heroes in adulthood as well.

Personally, I found that I had to become something else than I was, and I wasn’t able to. I tried being what and who people around me wanted me to be, but the uncomfortable truth is that they all saw me as a failure. I couldn’t dream any more, because I didn’t have the skills required of me. I’m in my 50’s now and think I’m finally becoming the adult I always wanted to be. I’m sorry I had to leave the child behind so many years ago, but he’s returning. It took a life to build a life, to recover from the growing pain, but I see my world coming to life now. It’s as if I’m back in my own equivalent to the Hundred Acre Wood, and that’s a good place to be. The adventures I’ve had with my family will be just ours, though.

Breaking the habit

The Moon and Venus (behind the tree). Some find the silence from space to be disturbingly loud.
The Moon and Venus (behind the tree). Some find the silence from space to be disturbingly loud.

I’ve seen quite a few blog posts warning aspiring authors against basing a character on a real person, and especially themselves. I think some say it can be restrictive, but perhaps it’s rather the opposite? I frequently find it more restrictive to follow rules.

I wouldn’t create a character so close to reality it would be obvious to everyone who I based it on. There are a couple of famous examples from my own country. Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote the enormously successful six volume series My Struggle, but there was a high price to pay, not just for him. He talks about it in this interview in The Guardian. Another Norwegian author, Vigdis Hjort, published the novel Will and Testament four years ago. The main character was sexually abused by her father, and although the author insisted it was fiction, her sister wrote what media labeled a revenge novel. The Guardian wrote a review of Will and Testament too. I wonder how much of this would be all over the media if the families had simply left it alone, but perhaps that is beside the point.

I wouldn’t stretch it as far as these two did, but how could we possibly make interesting characters if they didn’t look like real people? Using traits we have observed clearly must be allowed, but I’d be careful about making it too obvious. The same goes for companies. The Brief History of the Dead is a dystopic novel where everybody dies, and as I recall the Coca Cola Company’s mention was less than honourable, but perhaps they are used to that.

Another rule is the adverb. I believe it was Stephen King who said that the road to hell was paved with adverbs, or something like that, but I find it too restrictive to focus on what I can’t do. It’s like the H & M billboards that popped up everywhere in the early 1990’s. They became a much debated topic, and some claimed it was a traffic hazzard when giant photos of Cindy Crawford and Anna Nicole Smith in H & M underwear tried to get our attention away from the road. It was probably an exaggerated fear, as we didn’t seem to have more accidents than before.

It wasn’t completely unfounded, because I have noticed how dangerous it can be to take your eyes off the road for even a second, but writing isn’t quite the same as driving. Sometimes breaking the rules or expectations can be a good thing. I must have taken the warning a little too seriously, because it was driving me crazy trying to write without adverbs. I tend to be a wordy writer. I’m decadent and overindulgent in my pursuit of words, but maybe I really am lazy? That’s the accusation against writers with a tendency to use adverbs.

I’m working on my first book, and although I’m pleased with the result, this is also my education. This book has taken a long time, because I’m also using it to learn how to write a novel. So perhaps I can learn to use adverbs sensibly? It remains to be seen. Imagine someone on the autism spectrum. These people may have some challenges most outsiders don’t consider, such as different kinds of sensory intolerance or sensitivity. I’ve never used the phrase “the sun shone loudly”, but I suspect it would be an accurate description if light is what you are sensitive to. I get the feeling many have found social distancing to be a challenge, and if you’re not used to being alone, I can see how silence screams loudly. Some have a smiliar feeling concerning space. The idea of being alone troubles many. I suppose I’ll try to keep it simple, and resist the temptation to be overly clever or fancy.

I think Stephen King may have been referring to dialogue attributes. He shouted is enough, and adding loudly wouldn’t be necessary at all. I have to remind myself of the word simple, but I like the idea of light or silence being too loud, and sometimes it is tempting to add the ly-suffix. It’s almost an automatic reflex. I’m writing a story that takes place in two time peiods, and the past doesn’t have contractions, but I find some every time I go over my story. It’s like my brain doesn’t want to edit what sounds perfectly normal. It’s so annoying having to obey all the time, and I probably won’t every time.

I travel between worlds

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. J. K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I sometimes miss the magic of childhood. I still appreciate a good story, and I still have moments when it feels like I’m in that other universe, but it’s never like it was. The grown up world, frequently shaded by an excess of seriousness and gloom, is stronger than the fantasy.

The best I can hope for is an illusion, a false perception for a short period. It’s a sort of controlled or disciplined muse. I can allow it for a brief moment, but never give myself completely over to the dream. I suppose that’s the only way to live, not completely in the world of fantasy and not completely outside it. It was something I found hard to accept growing up. I eventually realised it didn’t matter what I thought. Time moved forward no matter what I wanted, so I had to succeed, or not.

The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe book cover. I know Aslan is supposed to be God, but I sometimes wish I had the relationship with him Lucy had.
I know Aslan is supposed to be God, but I sometimes wish I had the relationship with him Lucy had.

I have been pretty successful, but it hasn’t stopped me from wishing there was a Narnia, a Shire/Rivendell/Harlindon, or a wizarding world (Harry Potter). I also recall fond childhood memories of times spent in the Hundred Acre Forest, Wonderland (Alice), the England described in The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons, and later when it almost felt like I was living in St. Mary’s Mead, Whitehaven Mansions (Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot), Meryton (Pride & Prejudice), or rural Oxfordshire (Lark Rise to Candleford).

Some of these are pure fiction, while others are the author’s description of a real place. They don’t exist any more, if they ever existed in the form we read in these stories. I’ve heard that J. R. R. Tolkien based the Shire on the places he lived in Worcestershire and Oxfordshire, and some have argued that what he really wanted to save was his England. I don’t know how much of that is true and how much is speculation, but I find it very sad. It’s a sentiment I can totally relate to, because I’m not at all comfortable with change.

That’s one of the sad things about the Covid-19 outbreak, because there are some saying this is the end of the world as we know it. What they mean by that is that things will change. It may not be extreme changes, but there will probably be things we have to stop doing or do in a different way. No matter what happens, there is a chance there’ll be a long-lasting sense of loss. That leads to grief, and how you deal with it is important.

I have always been a fighter and that won’t change. I live mostly in the real world, but I sometimes take excursions to another world. These voyages make me feel better, but as strange as it may sound, I even find joy in grief. After grief at least. Some stories leave me feeling sehnsucht, a German word C. S. Lewis used a lot. It’s a longing for something we may not be able to define, and it could be a painful feeling. This is a quote from his book Mere Christianity:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

I’ve always found it hard to fit in, and I may be one of those individuals who is sort of misplaced. I sometimes feel I was meant for a different time period, a parallel universe, or some other kind of different life. Being aware of this sometimes pains me, but it also helps me. I find joy in the world I live in, and when I don’t, my mission is seeking that joy. I still have a strong distaste for change, but once I’m done feeling miserable, I appreciate the things I couldn’t see before. I don’t have a Mary Poppins to magically make things right again, and I can’t spend my life by the river together with Mole, Rat, and the other delightful characters. I’ll never have tea with Miss Marple or see the England some of my favourite authors have painted with their words.

What I have is a family, and books, and a creativity I’m slowly developing into books myself. I’m living much like a chess game, where the strategy is to slowly improve my position. It’s hard for the best players in the world to win against each other, and it’s not uncommon to see ties after the computer gave one of them up to 80 percent chance of winning. It’s hard to take advantage of that strength, because what the computer sees as a path to victory, might require 30 accurate moves. It’s hard to see that far ahead, so the solution is to attempt being in a better position after you’ve made your move. That sometimes is enough, and sometines not.

It works for me. I don’t feel great every day. In fact, there are days when I feel lousy, but I’m still better off than I was in the past. That’s comforting, even if we all live in a story where there is a battle between good and evil. Things can change quickly, but I am the narrator of my own story. I can’t control everything, but I find that there’s a lot I can influence.

My doomsday library

A Facebook friend shared an article this morning with the headline “New Zealand government bans books as non-essential.” This friend’s understandable reaction was that this was cruel. Books are, to many of us, essential in staying sane during a lockdown.

Maybe I’m playing with semantics, but technically they didn’t ban fiction. You could still order any book you wanted, but only the titles the government classified as essential would be delivered during the limited lockdown period. I thought the article was unnecessary, as it was published after the government announced the lockdown would end on April 28.

The world was remarkably unprepared for Covid-19, and most countries are desperately trying to catch up now. My government is currently waiting for a response from the Norwegian pharmaceutical industry about whether or not they’re willing to produce vital medicine in Norway. We rely heavily on food import too (50 percent), and it’s not because we don’t have a choice. It’s a financial decision, but people are asking themselves whether this was such a good idea. Shutting down our own industry seems sensible as long as it works, but sooner or later things will happen.

New Zealand authorities could have handled it differently, but this virus also shows how vulnerable we are in a crisis, because no one seems to have imagined a world that didn’t work the way we are used to. Customers in New Zealand could get books on self-help delivered from their online shops, while delivery on fiction was delayed. I guess they wanted people to learn quickly how to manage on their own, but I believe fiction is essential. Still, it can be debated how much is the government’s responsibility and how much is ours. The truth is that we are all a part of the goverment’s response. That’s what a community is, and we can’t always wait for someone else to make decisions. Besides, in order for the government to help those in need, the rest of us need to be our own help.

It's sad when books are not wanted. The library sold these four.
I find it sad when great stories are not read. I bought these from different libraries.

I’ve got used to buying books from Amazon, which is very convenient, and as I can also buy used books there, I usually can get hold of titles that are no longer available from the publisher. They are not shipping to Norway at the moment, which may have more to do with a strike than Covid-19, but it’s another reminder of our vulnerability. There is a government website offering advice on self-preparedness for emergencies, and they give a list of what everyone should have at home at all times, along with different scenarios that could lead to an emergency. Books are not seen as essential, so they are not mentioned. Maybe it’s so obvious they didn’t see the need to include books, but I also don’t think they were realistic about the time frame. The idea is that we have to manage on our own for three days before we can expect any public help, but I think we should be prepared for a longer period alone.

I call this negative thinking. It’s not about being C-3PO from Star Wars (we’re doomed!), but about being prepared for what could happen. Positive thinking usually doesn’t allow for you think of alternatives. I’m oldfashioned and like reading printed books, but I have enjoyed re-reading some old books the past few weeks, as well as listening to audio books. I don’t see myself as a prepper, but in terms of books I think it’s a good thing to have alternatives. This wasn’t a crisis without internet and electricity, but imagine if we were to experience a six month period without access to TV and audio books. Would you be prepared for that?

That’s what negative thinking is. You know that bad things sometimes happen, and you try your best to limit the damage that would cause. I started much too late, but I am slowly ordering printed copies of the books I already have as audiobooks. Buying them as audio first isn’t a bad idea, because then I can decide whether or not it’s worth owning them. There are some books that, although I enjoyed reading them, I don’t really want to read again. Then there are some books I enjoy reading over and over again, and I want those in my library.

The photo is a little sad. They are a small selection of books I’ve bought from libraries. I assume they were withdrawn because no one checked them out any more. They are such great stories, and no matter what happens in the future, they’ll be available for me to re-read.

The accidental writer

My last remainng Harry Potter book.
My last remainng Harry Potter book

I’m starting with my last remaining Harry Potter book. I used to have all of them, along with a lot of other books, but I’m afraid I had to abandon them. My last employer paid for all our belongings to be sent 1 300 km from Telemark to Nordland county, but when I left I had to pay the $ 4000 myself. I couldn’t possibly afford that, so we sadly had to leave most of our belongings behind. That was six years ago, and we still haven’t been able to replace the books.

I’m calling myself an accidental writer of purposeful stories on Twitter. I more or less stumbled across writing, because unlike many of the authors I know about, it wasn’t obvious to anyone around me. I go through periods when I listen to podcasts, such as So you want to be a writer with Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo. Quite a few of their guests talk about how they read and wrote stories from early childhood. That wasn’t me at all, but the dream was there from the beginning. I had the imagination for it, but I always doubted whether I was the right one to tell the stories.

I worked in a very demanding job as a teacher, and I had to give my stories up for a while. I found I couldn’t do everything, so I had to focus on school and university for many years. My job as a teacher took absolutely everything I had, but as devastated as I was when I had to leave my career, it enabled me to start exploring some of my old stories. It didn’t happen over night, but the magic slowly developed, and it feels like I’m getting somewhere now.

I want to write an entertaining story, but I hope there’ll be something more. I wouldn’t go as far as a couple of schools I’ve heard about in Ireland and England. They banned specific childrens’ books for “being too simplistic, brutal, and banal.” Maybe I’m being too judgmental, but when I browse some of the most popular TV shows and music, I don’t find a lot of interesting stories. Still, it starts with entertainment. I had problems with writing and reading for a long time in my childhood, and it wasn’t morally elevated literature that motivated me.

Some would probably label two of my favourite authors, J. K. Rowling and Rick Riordan, as too simplistic, but there are so many good messages in their books. Percy Jackson for example grew up with a working mother, and his father was never in the picture (not that it would have been easy for him). This is real to many kids. Percy Jackson couldn’t stand seeing kids being bullied, and he didn’t just ignore it. Many of these YA books teach the value of friendship, courage, loyalty, and the fact that people aren’t always what they appear to be. Professor Snape was one of my favourite characters from Harry Potter, because he was so complicated.

It’s tricky writing an entertaining story with a certain morality in it. Tolkien may have written the ultimate purposeful book, because he saw The Lord of the Rings as a catholic book, while most people see something completely different. Jane Austen may have succeeded in writing the ultimate books on the other end of the spectrum. I’m a big fan of her books, but although you could read social criticism into her stories, I see them mostly as pure entertainment with missed opportunities. Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park for instance owned a plantation in Antigua, but as I recall, Austen didn’t really debate morality. There are also many examples of a double standard where men could clearly do whatever they wanted.

There was a lot of abuse in those days, abuse people knew about and condoned. We should perhaps ask ourselves whether feeling good is the correct response after reading some of the books from the Regency Era, or any other era, when we know it wasn’t like that at all in real life. Life was pretty horrific to most people. At least it should leave us with conflicting emotions sometimes. Yet, no one is talking about moving these books out of the library. Perhaps there are worse things we can expose children to than stories about children changing their lives?

A lesson from my character

We did not become. We did not change. But change must come. Risk must come. Sheri Tepper

I think I was around 14 when I started reading classic science fiction stories by authors like H. G. Wells, John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Philip Dick. I discovered Sherlock Holmes around the same time, and I accidentally ran into Tolkien at the library a couple of years later. I don’t think any of these authors were widely read in Norway at the time, but they more or less changed my life. I struggled with both reading and writing in school, and as a consequence my confidence was non-existing. It was pretty obvious I wasn’t going anywhere, but I think the turning point was when I found the motivation to read, and it started with science fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and a growing list of fantasy.

I had periods when I lost momentum, and I went through a major one in my late 20’s and early 30’s, but then Harry Potter was published, followed by Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase. Things didn’t work out in my career as a teacher, and I lost sight of my dream during those difficult years. I sometimes wondered if the education I’d fought so hard to get was in vain, but when I came out on the other side of fear and darkness, I started thinking I may have been meant for something else. Incidentally, I wasn’t alone during those years, because J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Rick Riordan helped me a lot. I could see that my struggles had prepared me for the stories I’m writing these days. I did the work myself of course, but I’m not sure I’d pull myself together without the books that captivated me, and that started in 8th grade. I’m sure my parents and teachers tried to motivate me, but they didn’t succeed. I think it was Stephen King who referred to books as portable magic, and they have had that function in my life. They developed and protected/insulated me. They spoke to me across long distances in time and space, and they changed the outcome, which I think would have been pretty bleak.

I came across a question on a blog recently: What scares you?

It reminded me of a post I wrote myself once. My post was about Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who went blind on his first space walk. He held a TED lecture when he came back from the International Space Station, and he started with the following question:

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

His blindness was temporary, caused by the product they used to prevent the visor from fogging up, but he didn’t know that at the time. His own answer to the question was pretty obvious, but because NASA prepare the astronauts for anything that could go wrong, he didn’t panic.

He compared it to going through spider webs. Spiders are usually harmless in a cold climate. It’s one of the advantages of living somewhere cold, but many are still afraid of spiders. The perceived danger is a lot higher than the actual danger, and the solution he suggested was to walk through spider webs. After doing that a few times, you realise it’s not likely to harm you. In other words, expose yourself to the situation you fear. It doesn’t feel great, but that’s the recomended treatment for anxiety.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to conquer your enemy once. Fear and anxiety have a way of sneaking up on you. It’s easy sitting at my desk writing. Sending the manuscript to a publisher and waiting for the verdict from a totally ruthless reader is a lot worse. It would be a huge disappointment being rejected, but I’m trying not to think about the consequences of success. I’d have to give people the impression I do nothing but walk through spider webs all day, and there’s a lot of them.

Seeds sprouting Life starts.
Life starts.

When I get published it’ll be time for me to learn from my character. Heroes are usually the most unlikely person for the job. In fact, they are frequently weak, terrified, and remarkably unsuited for the mission. So why would they be the preferred candidate? Perhaps a weak or humble background is required for the learning experience, or perhaps the hero has to figure out what scares him/her, and then do it? No matter what the reason is, I find inspiration in fictional characters who became something they were not, or who showed people they were more than the world could see.

I can handle all the spider webs I’ve encountered so far. I have some of the scariest ones left, but I intend to expose myself to that danger as well. That’s an opponent I have a chance against, because I have already faced a stronger one. I used to fear failure, which is why it took me so long time to start writing. That was a big spider in my life, but it’s been defeated. Like I said, the enemy could come back, and some in my family also know the spider called bitterness.

I ‘m not immune to that, but I hope I have walked through enough spider webs to be spared. I want to be like a seed that is planted by the rivers of water (reference to Psalm 1:3). I have a history of killing plants, possibly my own spirit as well, but I’m trying to grow some seeds on my veranda this spring. It’s a reminder of the beautiful symbolism in nature, and in Christianity. I bury the seeds, and in a  sense they must give up life before they can produce life. That’s bascially what happens in nature every autumn, but what may look like absence of life, is just a period of rest to prepare for new growth. I have a feeling my spring is coming.

The butterflies lead me

two pillows with butterflies and text hope.
I’m with Ron Weasley, I want to follow the butterflies.

The previous owner of our apartment agreed to leave some of the furniture behind, which was very convenient for us, because it meant we didn’t have  to drag all our raggedy belongings across the mountain. We rented a van and one trip was enough. Our present sofa is quite new, but they don’t make furniture like they used to. This one looks cheap, like most things you find in Jysk (Danish retailer). I have shopped quite a bit there myself because it’s affordable, but everything seems to be grey or black these days. The sofa looked rather like Marvin (the paranoid android), but my wife decided to give it a cheerful disposition. I like the butterflies, but I’m a little more ambivalent to the word hope.

It reminds me of all the people telling me that hope and/or happiness is a choice. I can see their point, but it reminds me too much of the many people over the years that have told me success was a choice. In their view the only reason some people fail in work, or in life, is because they made the decision to do so.

My point is that it’s almost impossible not feeling despair and hopelessness sometimes, but of course staying there for a long time is another matter. We can make the decision to look for a way out, which for some people means therapy, but there usually is a reason our emotions are trying to tell us something. The same principle can be applied to the Covid-19 situation. There’s a lot of fear in the population at the moment. Some are angry at the strict laws and rules we have to follow, and some act like they’ll gladly load the rest of us on cattle cars.

I wish people would stop attacking others in social media. Some of the comments I’ve seen have targeted people who are desperate because they are struggling financially, while others are worried because they already have a serious medical condition. It’s easy for someone else to say that staying calm is a choice. I think we all do the best we can. We make decisions based on how we understand the situation, and some of us have to be extra careful because so many of the people we encounter are not. Many don’t feel sick, so they don’t feel a need to be careful. It’s like depression or the job situation, people who find life manageable, feel that everybody else should manage without help. Those that don’t only deserve ridicule. I guess solidarity is so last year (or generation).

I’ve walked past this cheerful sofa many times a day without looking at the pillows. Maybe it’s because the word hope troubles me, but it was standing out yesterday. I had one of those days when life didn’t feel great, but as I noticed the pillow I was thinking back on previous days like that, and what I had accomplished after that bad day. Suddenly it wasn’t so bad, because I knew it was just a matter of being there when the future arrived.

That future is today, and I’m ready to go back to editing my manuscript. I suppose choosing hope is also realising the negative emotions have a purpose too. Maybe I just needed a breather yesterday? I’m following the butterflies today, because they bring hope.