I Am Not All Here
I’m not all here.
One of my earliest memories is of sitting in church with Grandmother Gleason, my mother’s mother, and her sister, my aunt Blanche, and listening to them discuss a woman several pews ahead of us. They did this frequently when I was with them, and they always did so in a stage whisper that could be heard by anyone within a dozen feet. The conversation went something like this:
“Blanche, isn’t that Mildred Evans?”
“Sitting just ahead of us by Harold Peterson. Look at that hat she’s wearing. Have you ever seen such a hat?”
“Are those birds pinned to it? They look like birds.”
“I think they’re finches.”
“I don’t think that’s Mildred Walker. I think she’s dead.”
“No, you’re thinking of Myrtle Evans. Besides, I think she’s dead, too. She wasn’t all here, you know. Everybody said so.”
By then I had sunk as far as I could into the pew, staring down at my bible and wishing I wasn’t all there, either. Perhaps somewhere along the way, my wish was granted.
I don’t like to examine this condition too closely, but I know that it is likely that right at this very moment one of my relatives or friends is remarking on it. When I was married, they warned my wife about it. He’s not all here, they would say, leaning close, imparting this information with sad, knowing smiles. Judine thought they were kidding, but that was before she discovered that I only hear maybe half of what she says to me. Her favorite example of my inattention—and there are many—involves reading something to me from the newspaper about which she thinks I ought to know. I listen and nod. I might even respond. Then five minutes later, when the paper is in my hands, I will read the same item back to her as if I was just discovering it. Which I am. This happens all the time. These days, she just shakes her head helplessly.
My children think it is a big joke. They know me well enough by now not to be surprised when it happens. Dad’s gone away again, they say to each other with a snicker. Joe Space Cadet. Sometimes they suggest I should get my hearing checked, that maybe the problem is I just don’t hear what they have to say. I tell them I don’t want to hear what they have to say because it usually involves giving them money. But these days, as the big six-oh approaches, I suppose I ought to give the poor-hearing argument a little more consideration.
Actually, my family and friends like me well enough, but they think I am weird. Or at least peculiar. I can’t blame them. I should have grown up a long time ago, and yet here I am, writing about elves and magic. I should have a real job by now. I did have a real job, once upon a time. I was a lawyer for seventeen years, but I quit when I felt comfortable enough with my writing career to think I could make a living at it. Readers used to ask me at autographing events if it wasn’t hard making the transition from practicing law to writing fantasy. I told them there was hardly any difference at all. That always got a laugh. They knew what I meant.
So what am I talking about when I say I am not all here? I mean that if you are a writer, you really can’t be. Writers are not all here, because a part of them is always “over there”—“over there” being whatever world they are writing about at present. Writers live in two worlds—the real world of friends and family and the imaginary world of their writing. If you were to measure the difference in time spent between the two, I suspect you would find it quite small. Nor is this distinction of real and imaginary meant to suggest that for a writer one is more compelling than the other. It isn’t. Each is compelling in its own way and each makes its demands on a writer’s time. But a writer can’t ever leave either for very long—in the case of the real world, for obvious reasons, and in the case of the imaginary world, for reasons that require a brief digression in order to make sense of them.
Let’s take a momentary look at writers and their books. That writers live in their writing probably isn’t news to you, but that they do so as much out of necessity as desire might be. I might argue that they do so because that is how writers are built: the writing compels and commands them as if they were little robots. They are not complete without it or happy when they aren’t doing it. Writing is life; you’ve heard that one, haven’t you? Writers need their writing; they need their imaginary worlds in order to find peace in, or make sense of, the real world.
I am always dabbling in my current book, no matter the time or place, thinking about some aspect of the writing that I haven’t quite gotten right or executed well enough. It doesn’t command my entire attention, just enough of it that I seem constantly distracted. Various dilemmas and concerns steal me away. Sometimes it is a character that hasn’t been fully developed. Sometimes it is a plot element that just doesn’t fit quite the way it should. Sometimes it is something as mundane as a name that needs rethinking. Sometimes it is your basic insecurity attack; I just know that what I have written the day before is dreck and will have to be thrown out. Sometimes I am just thinking ahead to the next day’s writing and beginning to put the images together in my mind.
But it is always something, as the saying goes. There is never a moment when I am not involved in thinking about writing. I can’t put it out of my mind entirely, even in the most trying of circumstances. You might as well ask me to stop breathing; thinking about my writing is as much a function of my life.
So when my family and friends discover I am not listening to them or they catch me staring off into space, I can’t do a thing about it, because that’s just the way I am. It is the way all writers are, I suspect. The muse whispers to you when she chooses, and you can’t tell her to come back later, because you quickly learn in this business that she might not come back at all.
Some of this has to do with writers being observers. We don’t become involved so much as we watch and take notes. Much of what happens around us goes into a storage bin in our minds for future consideration and possible use in a book down the line. What we observe is as important to us in determining what we write as what we know. Frequently those annoying distractions we experience are just instances of recording our observations because we think they might suggest, on reflection, further writing possibilities.
The writer Walter Mosley wrote a few years ago in an article that appeared in the New York Times that writing is gathering smoke—the smoke of dreams, of ideas, of the imagination. We collect that smoke and try to make something out of it. It doesn’t happen all at once, but only over time and never on a determinable schedule. We visit our hazy treasure every day in order not to lose sight of it, not to let it evaporate from neglect. At some point in our tending and examination, something substantial will come alive.
I think this is what writers are doing when that part of them that isn’t here is over there. They are gathering smoke. They are thinking about their writing, trying to make something solid and recognizable out of the ether of their musings.
Some would say that a writer’s most important work is to chronicle the human condition. I think that it is more important that they explore its possibilities. We don’t find answers so much in what we already know as in what we think might be.
To do that, a writer has to be able to step outside the real world to the world of the imagination. By doing so, perspective is gained.
Not being all here, when viewed in that light, finally begins to make sense.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks. Copyright © 2003 by Terry Brooks. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.