So I asked my father for a few words to help close out this feature I’ve been running on his book (sing it with me if you know the words!), The Children of Omm: The Unmaking of the Worm.
“About what?” he asked.
“Anything,” I replied. “Talk about the book. Talk about you. Talk about you writing the book. Talk about burritos for all I care. Just talk.”
“Burritos,” he mused, wandering off in the direction of his room and leaving me with a cold chill running up my spine as I realized I might very well be ending this month-long sneak peek with a thesis on Tex-Mex cuisine. To my relief, my father delivered a few thoughts about world-building and the craft of writing.
The first foundations of any yarn spinner are laid by a careful observation of the human condition. Just as you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, it is impossible to craft an entire world, let alone dozens of individual characters, and have them knock about together in breathtaking and creatively unpredictable ways without some understanding of how things and people work together, and there is no more inexhaustible fount of inspiration than those we rub shoulders with every day.
Serious people-watching, however, requires that we cast out all personal expectations of how people should work before beginning and focus instead on how, in fact, we actually struggle to function in daily life. Unraveling the motivations of those around us—without prejudgment (something that is fatal to genuine understanding) and without appearing to examine them under a dissecting microscope—is both endlessly diverting and highly instructive, and invaluable to world building and character development. Having spent a goodly number of years in this activity, I find that throwing characters (whose personalities and background only I as the author know perfectly) together in a world of my own creation to be hugely entertaining. But there is far more than entertainment value in literature.
Once a very long time ago I took a class in French literature at the University of Washington. To introduce the coursework to the students, the teacher asked each of us in turn why we read works of fiction and then listened without comment as each of us tried to divine what it was our instructor wanted to hear. It seemed to me as I listened to a fair amount of intellectual drivel that most of the class had missed the point. Seventy, or even eighty or ninety years, is too short a period of time to experience all that life has to offer, I said. By engaging in the worlds a skillful writer of fiction offers those who read, we may expand our horizons far beyond the confines personal experience imposes in the brief time allotted us. The teacher agreed with me. I aced the class.
You want to shed your limitations? Read!
From the time I was dandled on my father’s knee, I knew what I wanted to do: I was going to marry my mother (I didn’t) and grow up to be just like my father (I had rather more success there). On my way to the present, my dreams changed, as dreams will, but a few things remained constant: I would graduate from college, get a good job, marry a wonderful woman and we would raise a passel of happy kids.
In the 60’s it was still possible to put yourself through college by working summers and part time, and that’s what I did. Time passed, and before I knew it, the order was reversed—I was working full time and attending the University of Washington part time. Still, I refused to mortgage my future with student debt, and so a simple Bachelor’s degree took us ten years. In the meantime, I found and married the woman of my dreams, Kathryn, a librarian just finishing her degree, and we settled down to gathering children about us (some came in the usual way, but we did not turn up our noses at the cast-offs from others’ failed families, taking in disabled foster children and adopting several).
By the time our firstborn was 18 months old, Kathryn had noticed a book which listed children’s stories too good to be missed and we had started reading to the kids every night before bedtime. That time became sacred to us both and inviolate by any. By the time our kids reached kindergarten, they could all read, and did so voraciously. They were writing before they left their teens. And now, last of all, I have found writing. It feels like coming home.
PS: Do you want to give your children a leg up in life? Read to them—endlessly.