“There is no greater agony than an untold story inside you.”

((Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings))

***  ***   ***

I had a crazy dream last night:  I was eaten up by a giant leather-bound book in a Hogwarts-like library.

Two interpretations surfaced over the course of the day.  Dame Margaret H. Willison thought it was a reminder about a “monstrously overdue library book,” while I wondered if perhaps my subconscious is telling me to start my novel already.

The thing is, I’ve never had an overdue charge on my library cards — so perhaps my subconscious is trying to get my started on my Giant Writing Project.

The thing is, in my family saying you can write is pretty much like saying you can breathe.  We all have our own unique way with words, but we can all write eloquently in the styles for which we have a knack. Add that to the inescapable fact that we are descended from the family of José Rizal – hero of the Philippines, father of nationalism in Southeast Asia, and the man who penned the novel that started the uprising against Spanish colonialism in the Philippines – and it’s probably easier to understand now why none of us has ever been able to actually write a book.

I mean, come on:  with that kind of legacy, you’re never quite up to snuff even if your magnum opus isn’t meant to be the catalyst to nation-wide insurrection.

In my furiously-scribbling family, I’m the free spirit narrator who’s trying to find the meaning in everyday occurrences (hence my tagline, “Chronicles of the Significant Human Experience”) because that’s where I believe the best stories lie.  I know there’s a novel somewhere inside me; I feel a twinge every once in a while that urges me to sit down and, as Derrick Jensen said:

“Tap a vein and let it bleed onto the page.”  

Considering the fact that Hemingway also shares a similar view on what a written work actually is (he’s the one who said that bit about how writing is just being able to bleed whilst seated at the typewriter, right?), it’s pretty easy to see that writing anything noteworthy is more complicated than knowing what words mean and how to string them together into a sentence.

Writing in order to capture something truly meaningful and significant is one thing, but writing in order to convince others that one’s perception is worth considering as truly meaningful and significant is a different beast altogether.

How do you write something that the world can relate to when you stand on the opposite side of so many boundaries?

How to you write a story that people will want to read when hardly anyone is even interested anymore in the real lives happening all around them outside of their iThings?

Hence, why I’ve been focusing on this blog lately more so than the novel I’ve been trying to write for years.  Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it is also immensely beautiful and always worth telling — and somewhere in all these lives I’m trying to share and connect, I’ll find the thread that will turn into the yarn of that blasted, elusive book hiding inside my soul.  And once I find it, I shall wrestle it into submission and give my blood to birng to life whatever characters it may cradle inside.

The 15-minute book club, #3: The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock:

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence
Sabine’s Notebook: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Continues
T
he Golden Mean:   In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Concludes

 

Last night I had a rare opportunity to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

And I squandered it on the rediscovery of a book.

Though I’ve always been a scribbler, once upon a time I was also a reasonably talented visual artist who dabbled extensively in creating artwork in mixed media, black-and-white film photography, and digital manipulation. Writing and visual art collaborated frequently in my adolescent life, but one day they collided headlong with curiosity and a need for a psychological thrill when I first discovered Griffin and Sabine.

Written, illustrated, and constructed by Nick Bantock, this trilogy is comprised of the unusual correspondence between the broodingly lonely London artist Griffin Moss and the vivaciously mysterious Sabine Strohem, an artist from a chain of tiny islands in the South Pacific. Letters, postcards, and notecards – all exquisitely illustrated and handwritten, some in made-to-match envelopes that you can actually open and rifle through – document this mind-bending tale.

Part love story and part psychological thriller, Griffin and Sabine takes storytelling to another level by telling a story that requires its reader to do more than just turn to the next page. There’s a certain excitement to looking through the private correspondences of other people, and although I’d outgrown trying to break into my sister’s diary by my late teens the act of reading somebody else’s letters was still appealing. And it’s not just reading these intimate pieces of mail: each is a self-contained work of art that simply demands closer scrutiny from the reader, which in turns brings about a deeper appreciation for the concept and plot as well as a greater emotional investment in its outcome.

One of the reasons why I started “The 15-minute Book Club” section of this blog is to discuss the literature that inspired my own creative processes, changed or enhanced my perception, or otherwise impacted my life in a moving and profound fashion. Since closing the final book of the trilogy late last night I’ve been reflecting on what exactly this book means to me, I realized that Griffin and Sabine trilogy did all of these things for me.

As an artistic adolescent, upon the first reading of Griffin and Sabine I learned that art does not have to be perfect or conventional to be beautiful and meaningful: as long as it makes us think critically and opens our minds to a broader understanding of the world then art, to paraphrase Picasso, will always somehow enable us through is lies to comprehend the greater truths. It’s because of Griffin and Sabine that while I might not like or prefer certain kinds of art, I’m still able to appreciate them. For example, it might be hard to believe but you have to trust me when I say that Bantock’s image of a goldfish shattering a wineglass helped me get past my dislike of Warhol just enough to appreciate what a can of Campbell’s did for modern art.

Nick Bantock’s eccentric and raw approach to storytelling in the Griffin and Sabine books influenced my own writing style as well when I first read it in my late teens. Up until this point, my early attempts at writing always crashed and burned, ground to a screeching halt, or otherwise simply stopped because I was constantly getting bogged down in revealing everything all at once in desperate attempts to give my stories some kind of foundation. What Bantock’s style revealed was that the foundations of characters are just the back story – that the present story is what truly matters, and that a writer’s job is to allow the characters to tell the present story instead of trying to take over the main narrative by establishing off the bat what’s already happened to them. Reading the story of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem in literal bits and pieces taught me, as both a writer and a reader, to be patient with characters and let them reveal what they will, when they will.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that as far as my actual letter writing is concerned, anyone who’s ever received a letter or card from me will tell you that it’s always meticulously handwritten (and, in the case of the latter, usually handmade), includes hand-drawn illustrations and calligraphy-style quotes, and comes from the heart. While other books most certainly did contribute to my writing style regarding personal correspondence (not to mention my father’s insistence that we write often to our paternal grandmother in the Philippines), Griffin and Sabine definitely taught me a considerable amount about how to turn letter-writing into a true art.

Finally, this unconventional love story between these two artistic souls first came into my life at the end of an overseas long-distance relationship. While the letter-based narrative struck a few raw nerves at the time (this was before international texting was a “thing,” let alone me having my own cellphone, so snail mail was actually a big part of this first relationship) this latest reading of Griffin and Sabine reminded me that deep, intimate connections can and will come up in all kinds of sudden and unexpected ways, and that being open to these kinds of surprises leaves you open to experiencing the rest of life to its fullest.

The best love stories are all different, but they all share a common thread of relentlessly pursuing the most abstract concepts and sorting through the most befuddling emotions, and finding out who you really are in the process. Opening yourself up to another person and to the world, and then reflecting upon those experiences when you’re alone, is how you come into the most complete form of self-understanding and self-awareness. While this might not really be what these books are really about, this is how they spoke to me last night and at this point in my life that’s the main reason why I treasure this story.

So maybe in the end I didn’t totally squander a few preciously rare extra hours of sleep by diving back into the strangely beautiful world of Griffin and Sabine, and maybe in the end I wasn’t just curling up alone in bed with a book. I was diving back into the most confusing, lovely, engrossing, and riveting archive of a relationship that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and enjoying every unsettlingly bizarre and lovely morsel of it as I discovered more about myself through the extraordinary correspondence of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem.

The 15-minute book club, #2: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” 

— Atticus Finch

My parents raised us with what I’ve come to describe as a blended education; between September and June we attended public school, but the education continued during the summer with lessons in Latin, grammar, history, art, literature, and Catechism.  Idle minds were not permitted inside our house and the summer housekeeping on our education, though loathed and unappreciated at the time, has continuously served us in good stead in our grown-up lives.

I remember it well:  the summer I turned my oldest sister was given the task of coordinating the literary component of our summer learning.  At the time my brothers were on the threshold of turning nine and ten, and although our interests were starting to diverge like the proverbial path in the woods, the “all for one and one for all” mentality still prevailed.    In retrospect my sister’s wisdom was already well-developed even then, for she chose a novel that managed to capture three young and very different minds from beginning to end.

It was a miracle that a novel narrated in the first person by a six-year-old girl was able to hold the attention of two pre-adolescent boys, but I suppose that’s part of the magic of To Kill a Mockingbird – not to mention the fact that it can exert that same strength on readers who revisit it as adults, and therefore read it under a different light.  It is a harsher light than the yellow halogen of a desk lamp, the bluish circle of a flashlight under a duvet, or the dappled summer sun filtering through a canopy of leaves and branches.  It is the harsh, bright light of experience that comes from within to illuminate the depths of words that we as children see but cannot quite yet fathom.

While I’m sure my brothers found the book’s “bigger picture” to be more interesting than the day-to-day happenings of the Finch family, that first encounter appealed to the tomboy I was back then for I could relate to Scout Finch on many levels.  From trailing along on the shirttails of older brothers who were starting to lose interest in their little sisters to enduring trials at school in both the classroom and the playground, Scout and I had a lot in common and I wished she and Jem could materialize in the real world so that we all could be friends.  Jem could be the male third my brothers were starting to long for when we weren’t with our closest cousins, and Scout could be the female best friend who had always been missing from my early life.

We in the real world even had our own version of the Radley House at the end of our street, complete with its own lore derived mostly from the overactive imaginations of neighborhood children.  My young mind would overlap that house with the one in the book and conjure up new inhabitants, and the adventures we would have there with the Finches always involved Scout and me teaming up against our older brothers and outperforming them in bravery and boldness.

My early years in school were similar to Scout’s, particularly where actual book learning was concerned.  I remember being told by the school librarian that children in grade one could only borrow from the section of the library where there were picture books – a rule reinforced by my teacher and, once it came to the attention of my parents, promptly ignored and undermined by means of my first card for the public library.  A year later, reading about Scout’s interactions with Miss Caroline Fisher on Scout’s very first day of school brought back the memory of being turned away from the school library check-out counter by the steely-haired, flinty-eyed librarian because I wanted to check out two novels “too advanced for my grade’s reading level.”

That summer flew by as I chased daydreams inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird but all too soon it was to become a thing of the summer – as short-lived as the sweet freedom of the season itself, and like the last rays of the sun on the final night before school started not even the light of that beloved book could outshine all that I was to learn in the next year.  When September arrived I found myself in the third grade under the tutelage of a teacher who supported my literary precociousness and encouraged me to read whatever I wanted.  When I told her what I’d read that summer and proved that I could spell, define, and properly use the book’s advanced vocabulary, I also told her that I had spent the previous two years bored to tears during class trips to the school library because I wasn’t allowed to venture to the other side where the novels were kept.   I don’t know what passed between my third-grade teacher and the librarian, but whatever words were exchanged my teacher’s evidently were stronger –  because from then on I was able to borrow whatever my heart desired from whatever shelf I felt drawn to any given day of the week.

To Kill a Mockingbird soon disappeared under piles and piles of other books.  Most were borrowed from the school library, the public library, and my father’s study; some were procured with pocket money from various book sales at the community centre and church; and a few – my treasures at the time – were  bought brand-new with birthday and Christmas money.  But it came back to the top of the pile in grade ten, when the English curriculum called for it as a class novel study.  I went along with the coursework, completing the entire book and assignment package in about a week – a feat that left me more time to delve deeper than my classmates into the story.

This was, perhaps, one of the first times I experienced how a classic book changes with the age of its audience.  The parts I had found highly hilarious as a child were, nearly ten years later, only amusing.  Adolescent retrospect made me see my childhood delights and daydreams as silly flights of fancy and I, like Jem and my brothers, chose to pay more attention now to the bigger things in life than to Scout and the world she inhabited between Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house and the Radley Place.  The novel, which my younger self had seen as amusing and entertaining, revealed to Teenage Me its more somber face.  As I dove deeper into it, trying to find out what Harper Lee was really trying to say, I was swept into the undercurrents of Maycomb’s society until I was washed up on disenchanted shores where I waded through muddy waters where history crashed against fiction.  I realized then that my first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird was only one way by which I might experience the novel, and that as precocious as I might have been at seven I had subconsciously skimmed over the later chapters of the book because my childhood mind could not quite understand why Harper Lee would have spent so much time on “boring, grown-up things” in a book that I thought to be about an idyllic and carefree childhood.

Soon, To Kill a Mockingbird disappeared once more under other books.  I gave it barely a thought during my university years, during which any reading I did was hardly for the mere pleasure of opening a book and forgetting a cup of tea three sips and two chapters later.  When Go Set a Watchman was released earlier this summer, its predecessor came to the forefront of my mind and I found myself more eager to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird than I was to discover Go Set a Watchman.  In my current phase of audiobooks, I was delighted – though hardly surprised – to find several audio versions of that beloved novel and immediately downloaded the edition narrated by Sissy Spacek.

The hormonal sullenness of adolescence now long behind me, I’ve found that I can enjoy the amusing portions of To Kill a Mockingbird with delight similar to that of childhood.  I’ve also realized that the novel has more amusing lines and passages than my younger eyes had ever seen, thus proving that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean you entirely lose either your sense of humor or your ability to find lightheartedness anywhere.  As for the parts where teenaged eyes could only see distress, discouragement, and disenchantment, my adult observations can now see what good can come out of the novel’s darker elements.

Although it reads as a memoir and a coming-of-age-story, Scout tells it all from the point of view of a child.  The words Harper Lee gives her to tell her story are mature and eloquent, but Scout recounts the events of her early life in a tone as straightforward and frankly as only a child’s voice can be.  Scout is suspended in time within the book, forever a child in an idyllic environment only just beginning to crack under the pressures of the larger world beyond picket fences.  Out here in the real world, I have aged; I have grown up in all kinds of ways, losing innocence in the process and therefore sometimes losing hopefulness and faith.  Though Scout grows up too, at the end of the book she is still in that liminal phase where life’s harder lessons are now perceptible but not quite yet tangible, not yet quite learned.

To Kill a Mockingbird keeps Scout in that safe zone within Calpurnia’s earshot, and because of that I can go back to the novel any time I please and be transported to a childhood whose memories and stories are perfectly preserved.  It means that I, now an adult, can still walk up to meet Scout on the porch and re-experience that childhood.  Enough years have gone by between my first meeting with Scout and now for me to be able to do any discussion about To Kill a Mockingbird the justice owed it.  Even though I see things now for what they really are in that seemingly lovely version of Maycomb, I have a child’s hand by which I might be led through those dusty red streets and by whose touch I am reminded to look through even the darkest moments of life with the hope and faith that a light may still be seen somewhere in it.

The 15-minute book club, #1: The Icewind Dale Trilogy by RA Salvatore

The Icewind Dale Trilogy by RA Salvatore 

  • The Crystal Shard
  • Streams of Silver
  • The Halfling’s Gem 

One of my brothers brought it home from the public library one day, and less than a week later it was in my hands:  a huge paperback omnibus edition containing an entire trilogy of novels.

Its grey cover, bent and creased by previous borrowers as all popular library books are, depicted four characters on a snow-covered outcropping of rocks.  There was a redheaded woman in a green dress standing next to a long-haired and youthful warrior in a horned helmet holding a giant hammer, and on the ledge below them a dark-skinned elf held an onyx figurine of a cat as a black panther materialized on the snow in front of him.  They were but four of the adventuring party with who my brothers and I would soon become obsessed over the next few years of our young lives:  the Companions of the Hall, a motley band of heroes hailing from the land called Icewind Dale in the Dungeons and Dragons universe.

The first book of the trilogy, and thus the omnibus, opened with a poem that I read over several times before I even thought to turn the page:

Come gather ‘round, hardy men of the steppe
And listen to my tale
Of heroes bold and friendships fast
And the tyrant of Icewind Dale

Of a band of friends, by trick or by deed
Bred legends for the bard
The baneful pride of one poor wretch
And the horror of the Crystal Shard

I remember how that simple poem sparked my curiosity and how, by the third time I read it, that spark had become a small but steadily-growing fire that brought a new life to my imagination.  My brothers could not stop talking about these books, and I wanted to know why — and after reading that opening poem, I knew that this would be something I could share with them that would transcend a mere infantile desire to mimic my older siblings in the hopes they might see me more as a peer and less as a pest.

Our shared love of the fantasy genre had been born in Middle-Earth and Narnia, and now our literary adventures led us to stir up the dust of legends in Faerûn.  I sped through The Icewind Dale Trilogy at lightning speed, enamored with this brave new northern world and entangled happily in the enchanted web RA Salvatore wove in the harsh and forbidding setting.

The Icewind Dale Trilogy came into my life soon after one of my first best friends exited – only a few days after a schoolyard incident had shattered that friendship beyond repair.  A picture of the two of us at my birthday party had been found in a puddle by the long-jump pit, and when I told the boy who found it that it I had given it to the “blonde girl in the picture” he told me, “She’s my class, and when I brought it to her she told me that she didn’t want it anymore.”

My birthday is in August, and during my elementary and high school years that meant hardly anyone would ever be in town to celebrate it.  The picture in question had been taken during the year when that blonde girl had been the only friend from school who hadn’t gone off on vacation or to camp the week of my birthday, and in my juvenile mind the fact that she’d been the only friend at my party meant that she was my best friend.  You can imagine, then, how awful I felt when I heard through the schoolyard grapevine that my apparent best friend in another classroom had denounced our friendship in front of most of our grade.

This was emotional background to my first encounter with RA Salvatore’s beloved character Drizzt Do’Urden and his diverse band of adventurer-warrior friends, and it set the scene perfectly for me to develop a deep attachment to their tale.  Their unfailing loyalty and support for one another, as well as their acceptance of each other despite such stark and obvious differences in their backgrounds, were all things I yearned to find in my peers but had yet to discover.

I longed to be able to slip through some rift in the earth and fall into Icewind Dale – and all the lands the Companions of the Hall subsequently travelled –  so that I could meet this band of heroes and earn my place among them.  I daydreamed of doing so by committing some gigantic act of bravery in the heat of battle following the sudden discovery of some special talent or ability that lay stifled by Earth’s magic-less atmosphere, or perhaps by bringing knowledge from Earth into some dire situation whose impossibility had exhausted all of Faerûn’s own possible solutions.  Though having my own share of their legendary fame was appealing, it was the idea of belonging to a group like that – a group of truly best friends – that committed my heart to the entire Legend of Drizzt saga.

In time, I came to realize that I did have hidden qualities and talents that could be used and shown in fine form in my earthly existence.  It’s true that I fell in love with literature while sitting at the feet of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, but it was RA Salvatore who inspired me to make a first real commitment to writing a world of my own. Most important of these cached treasures was my love for writing, which became apparent when I started committing my daydreams to paper.  This secret phase of writing fan-fiction made me realize that if I could insert myself into the existing canon of Forgotten Realms legends, then maybe I could make my own world where all my wildest dreams would find life.

It’s been a long while since I last visited my childhood friends in the Forgotten Realms, but I’ve recently returned.  And I’m glad I came back, for upon reading the opening lines I felt a feeling not unlike the kind I get whenever I am reunited with my brothers and sisters under one roof, or whenever I see a friend whose company I have not shared in a long while:  that wonderfully strange feeling that my heart has somehow arrived home…as if taking it up was like knocking on Drizzt’s door, and reading it was like being admitted to cross his threshold and sit by the fire beside him, Guenhwyvar the astral panther at our feet and the rest of the Companions – Wulfgar, Catti-brie, Bruenor, and Regis – expected to join us at any minute.