Category Archives: Book/Play Excerpt

If you follow your star

“I will give you some free advice.”

“Will it cost me anything?”

“You could say it’s priceless. Are you listening?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now… if you trust in yourself…”

“Yes?”

“…and believe in your dreams…”

“Yes?”

“…and follow your star…”

“Yes?”

“…you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

– Terry Pratchett (from Discworld’s Wee Free Men)

Have I mentioned that I love Pratchett? The quote above is advice from the ever-practical Miss Tick to apprentice witch Tiffany Aching, who’s also pretty practical and an awesome heroine.

I have nothing against dreams and plans, but advice like “follow your dreams” is pretty useless unless the hearer understands how much work it’s going to take.

Advertisements

This is my glass? I don’t think so.

“There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty.

“The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: ‘What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!'”

– Terry Pratchett (from The Truth)

I’m a huge fan of Pratchett’s Discworld book series. It has 38 books in it, following various groups of characters. He’s funny, his characters are terrific, and his stories are interesting and unexpected. I recommend them highly, even for people who don’t like fantasy.

The problem is, I never know where to tell people to start reading Discworld. The first two books give you a good introduction to the fictional world, but, well, they’re not especially good. They’re episodic and full of satire against specific fantasy tropes of the time. The rest of the books are much more interesting as stand-alone stories. Also, the main character in the first two books (Rincewind) is one of my all-time least favorite in the series.

So, if you’re a fantasy fan, start from the top with The Color of Magic. If you’re not, you could start with Mort (about death taking an apprentice), or Wyrd Sisters (about a coven of witches trying to get a bad king off the throne; an homage to Macbeth), or Guards! Guards! (a police/mystery story; first in the City Watch series).

Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing Fiction

As as reader, I can agree that all of these are essential, except maybe #7. I love mysteries and being confused by books, as long as I know it will all make sense by the end. Thanks to the BardCast guys for telling me about them, and to Wanderings.net for posting them.

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

6. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

7. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

Expectation and Memory

“How could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back — if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole of life with expectation and memory, and that these are that day.”

– C.S. Lewis

This quote is from “Out of the Silent Planet.” The speaker is alien of an un-fallen race, the hrossa, which has never really known sin. (If you like science fiction or have an appreciation for strange books, check out Lewis’ Space Trilogy. I highly recommend it.)

Lewis sets up a high standard here, and I don’t think he really expects us to never be sad. Those of us who are fallen will always have sadness (and sometimes regret) looking back at the past. We lose good things all the time. Unlike the hrossa, we live in a fallen world, hampered by our sin, and still somewhat separated from God (even when we have his Spirit). Death and other kinds of loss are heart-breaking, and God never tells his people not to grieve. We should rejoice in all circumstances, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also cry.

Nevertheless, I really like the idea here that expectation and memory are more than just “not currently having something good.” They are part of enjoying something. To take a small example, you can enjoy a good vacation while you wait for it, while you experience it, and while you remember it. The trip is all of those things, not just the 5 days you were actually on vacation.

To live is to look forward and to look back. We live in the present and we act in the present, but we carry our hopes and our memories around with us. They are a part of us and a part of everything we experience. We should appreciate them more.

I were but little happy, if I could say how much.

{In the following scene from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” young Claudio and Hero are told they get to spend their lives together, and they have very little to say. Shakespeare certainly had characters who could carry on with the best of them, but he also knew when less is more. I love this exchange. In case you don’t know the story, Count Claudio and Hero (yes, a woman) are the lovers, Leonardo is Hero’s father, and Beatrice is her cousin.}

Leonardo: Count, take of me my daughter, and with her my fortunes. His Grace hath made the match, and all grace say amen to it.

Beatrice: Speak, Count, ’tis your cue.

Claudio: Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy, if I could say how much! Lady, as you are mine, I am yours. I give away myself for you, and dote upon the exchange.

Beatrice: Speak, cousin, or (if you cannot) stop his mouth with a kiss, and let not him speak neither.

{From Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene 1. I think the movie version with Kenneth Branaugh is a great introduction to this play, and to Shakespeare in general.}

Love is rediculous.

I have recently discovered a beautiful and wonderful new children’s book: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread. I’ve heard that the movie makes significant changes and isn’t worth watching (I haven’t seen it), but the book is definitely worth your time. If you can, get the audiobook.

This is her dedication/introduction on the first page:

“The world is dark, and light is precious.
Come closer, dear reader.
You must trust me.
I am telling you a story.”

I like this book in part because it’s beautiful, and in part because it doesn’t feel the need to avoid real unhappiness for the sake of its readers. Children have known fear and loss and disappointment too, and books are a way to help them deal with it.

The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But stories that are not pretty have a certain value, too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light.

The central story is about a mouse (Despereaux) who loves with a human girl (in a knight-errant sort of way), and gets in trouble with the other mice for not being mouse-like enough.

Reader, you may ask this question. In fact, you must ask this question. Is it ridiculous for a very small, sickly, big-eared mouse fall in love with a beautiful princess named Pea? The answer is… Yes. Of course it’s ridiculous. Love is ridiculous. But love is also wonderful. And powerful.

Despereaux’s story is intertwined with that of a rat with a broken (and poorly mended) heart, and of a little girl who no one has ever cared about.

I’ve also read diCamillo’s “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” and I loved that too. There are strong themes in both about losing family and finding family – the idea that your family are the people who love you, the people who are there for you.

The evil in the fields that we know

The following is from Book V of “The Lord of the Rings” series (which is actually the second half of “The Return of the King”), chapter 9: The Last Debate. In this scene (which has been edited for length), the combined armies have won their great battle to defend Gondor, but Sauron and the ring still exist. This quote begins with Gandalf talking about their options.

“If it is destroyed, then he will fall; and his fall will be so low that none forsee his arising ever again. For he will lose the best part of his strength, and all that was made or begun with that power will crumble. And so a great evil of this world will be removed.

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

“This, then is my counsel. We have not the Ring; without it we cannot by force defeat his force.  But we must at all costs keep his Eye from his true peril. We cannot achieve victory by arms, but by arms we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it be.

“We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us. We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be.”

Two things in this passage stand out to me: 1) The courage to walk into almost-certain death for the people you are helping, most of whom are strangers. 2) The understanding that this brave act won’t even fix everything, but it’s a step in the right direction, so it’s what you have to do.

About the first, it’s unlikely that I’ll have a chance to sacrifice my life to save strangers, bit I do have daily opportunities to sacrifice my comfort and time to love other people.

I especially love the second idea. I need to be constantly reminded that I can’t do everything – house every hungry orphan, heal every hurting friend – and that’s alright. It’s not my job to save the world; God has/is doing that. My job is to tend the field I’m given. Maybe that will involve non-profit organizations and political office, but maybe it will just involve a few kids to raise, a circle of broken friends to love, and congregation where I can serve. Maybe my job in life won’t seem “important” to most people, but that’s not my concern. I have work to do.

Belief in the magical power of numbers

I am a bit of a Luddite (someone resistant to new technologies), and I’m fascinated with how each technology changes how people think and communicate. Following is a quote from Neil Postman, who has seriously considered this question. It’s from his 1992 book “Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology,” which I’d recommend. The book considers the (mostly negative) ways that Mr. Postman sees technology changing American culture, and ends with this manifesto.

Those who resist the American Technopoly are people:

  • who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why;
  • who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;
  • who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical power of numbers and do not regard calculations as an adequate substitute for judgement or precision as a substitute or synonym for truth;
  • who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding;
  • who do not regard the aged as irrelevant;
  • who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor;
  • who take the great narratives of religion seriously and do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;
  • who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake;
  • who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

I think of Postman every time I see a TV/car/camera add promising to improve my life, or open up a whole new world of sensory bliss, or make me a new person. I’d also recommend his “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which argues that television is at its worst when it presents serious subjects. He has nothing wrong with stupid TV shows, but he thinks that putting politics, religion, and news on the television changes and cheapens how we understand them. I love this guy. Can you tell?