Saving a Story’s Life

Peter_Pan_1915_coverPeople write for all kinds of reasons. I like to pretend I write because I love literature, because I have at least some gift for the craft and because I have important things to say about the human condition, but I think it’s time for me to finally admit that none of these are the reason I spend hours sitting alone typing.

I write novels because I am a crying babyman who never grew out of playing pretend. Also I never learned to cope with loss.

Every mundane action I perform is something else in my brain’s Imaginationland. When I get dressed in the morning, I am encasing myself in an environmental breathing suit which will allow me to breathe and move about in space, or else I am putting on enchanted clothing which will ward me against magic spells. Getting on the train is catching the space shuttle sometimes, or other times opening a door in the fabric of space to enter into the dimension of Purgatory (I do not like the Green Line). This happens all day. I cannot stop it. One day when I’m distracted I will finally call one of my work e-mails “a telepathic communique on the psi network” and my boss will be forced to issue some kind of a report to human resources, probably something which says “this person is a child.” Maybe I will be reassigned to some division in Neverland.

Even when participating in someone else’s fiction, it keeps going. There’s no off switch. When I read books, I am a wizard who uses books to link to other worlds, invisibly observing people and reading their thoughts. When I watch television, I am a Time Officer from the future projecting holograms of the records of history for the Council of Time.

mr-rogersI have reached my peace with this. Mr. Rogers told me to use my imagination as a sophisticated and layered way for my subconscious to filter all of my existential ennui through stories which gave my life and society meaning, probably not in those words because he was on a children’s program. But he definitely said to use make believe, and one time he made a bunch of grown successful Hollywood people weep by asking them to take a moment of silence, so he is probably pretty smart. I will trust Mr. Rogers to excuse my irresponsible and incorrigible daydreaming.

What is difficult, though, is how unnerved I am that all of these imaginary scenarios are gone the moment they vanish from my thoughts, and when I am dead, each and every one of them will be irrevocably lost forever and ever. What am I supposed to do about that, Mr. Rogers? How come King Friday or Bob Dog never had to deal with crippling thanatophobia?

I am not just afraid of losing people or places or things. I am unnerved by the fact there is no record of each passing thought and feeling. Neverland isn’t enough; Peter Pan and the Lost Boys seem to forget everything almost just after it happens. Where is the nervous swarm of butterflies that crashed around my stomach and made my veins rush with a pleasant buzzing when I had my first kiss? That feeling is gone, and the memory of it is inadequate. Where is the miserable nostalgia I experienced that time years ago when I smelled clementines and it flooded me with a rush of memories of an ex-girlfriend? I can’t remember if yesterday I pretended, while making dinner, that I was an alchemist brewing a potion or a God creating a primordial world, let alone how it made me feel at the exact time that I was pretending it.

Who is doing the record keeping for all of this? How are we supposed to recall any of it later?

One of things I like to pretend is that in the future, human society perfects time travel and neuroscience and undetectable nanomachines. They build an enormous computer which is the Record of Everything, and they send back the little nanoprobes through time, to record everyone’s brains at every single microsecond of their lives. Everything, each sense, every affect for every person in time, is conserved, permanently, in a vast, planet-sized computer, onward until the heat death of the Universe.

Right now, though, all I have is to write down the fantasies that pass through my head more often than others, the ones that stick there and make it hard to sleep at night. Hopefully I am doing it with some gift for the craft of writing and storytelling and hopefully with something meaningful to say about the human condition. It is perhaps no coincidence that the novel I am going to send to agents is about a boy who relives his childhood through time travel to prevent himself from losing the person he loves most. If I am very, very lucky, maybe that one will get published, and a few copies will find their way into the world. People will read them (maybe like a dozen people even), and they will have their own experience with the story. That story will live just a little longer in the world, have ever the slightest bit more permanence.

I am writing to save my stories from dying. There are precious few I can save, if any, and only for a short time, but even that is worth all the time and effort that I have.


  1. “I write novels because I am a crying babyman who never grew out of playing pretend”: an enviable skill, and this is why you write so well, pulling us (your readers) into surprising new worlds.

  2. gerald whelan

    This is brilliant, Jack. Light-hearted, profound & poignant all in one package. That’s damn hard to pull off. You’re a born novelist. You’re gonna make it.

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