Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Castles in the air

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Illustration by Jules Feiffer for The Phantom Tollbooth

I’ve written about The Phantom Tollbooth a number of times on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that Norton Juster’s fantasy contains the most moving passage I’ve read in any modern novel. Shortly before leaving the kingdom of Dictionopolis on his quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason, our young hero Milo has the following exchange with King Azaz the Unabridged, who has just been asked who will accompany Milo on his journey:

“A very good question,” replied the king. “But there is one far more serious problem.”
“What is it?” asked Milo, who was rather unhappy at the turn the conversation had taken.
“I’m afraid I can only tell you when you return,” cried the king, clapping his hands three times.

After many adventures, Milo and his friends arrive in the realm of Digitopolis, where they have a similar exchange with Azaz’s brother, the Mathemagician:

“But there is one problem even more serious than that,” he whispered ominously.
“What is it?” gasped Milo, who was not sure he really wanted to know.
“I’m afraid I can tell you only when you return. Come along,” said the Mathemagician, “and I’ll show you the way.”

Finally, at the very end of the novel, after Milo has returned in triumph from the Castle in the Air, he finally learns the truth:

“That’s why,” said Azaz, “there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn’t discuss until you returned.”
“I remember,” Milo said eagerly. “Tell me now.”
“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.
“Do you mean—” stammered the bug, who suddenly felt a bit faint.
“Yes, indeed,” they repeated together, “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”
And for the remainder of the ride Milo didn’t utter a sound.

Jules Feiffer's map of The Lands Beyond

In a book that’s as full of wisdom as any I know, this may be its wisest and most mysterious moment, and it never fails to choke me up a little. Like most aspects of The Phantom Tollbooth, it’s something that can be hard to appreciate until you’ve grown up and had a chance to absorb some of its lessons on your own. Anyone who decides to pursue a life in art—or any urgent but impractical dream—does so in defiance of all the odds. As I’ve mentioned before, a writer needs to be irrationally optimistic to believe that he or she can succeed where so many others have failed: no matter how detached or objective you try to be in other aspects of craft, you wouldn’t be taking this risk at all if you didn’t believe, deep down, that somehow you were the exception to the rule, despite all early evidence to the contrary. As Paul Graham has pointed out, young people have an advantage here, because they don’t know how impossible their goals are:

One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don’t realize how incompetent they are. This lets them do a kind of deficit spending. When they first start working on something, they overrate their achievements. But that gives them confidence to keep working, and their performance improves. Whereas someone clearer-eyed would see their initial incompetence for what it was, and perhaps be discouraged from continuing.

But really, it doesn’t have anything to do with age. There was a point in my life—heck, it might have been earlier this morning—when I was convinced that I wanted nothing more than certainty: a guarantee, or at least a preponderance of evidence, that the stories I wrote would be read. Even now, though, I’m not sure that will ever be the case. There’s still a decent chance that the next story I submit to Analog will be rejected, or that the novel I’m currently revising without a contract in hand will never see the light of day. On an even more basic level, there’s always the fear that I’ll wake up one morning and find myself unable to write at all, despite the fact that I’ve done so nearly every day for years. When you come right down to it, there’s nothing more impossible than the idea that a writer can start with a blank page and turn it into something that other people will want to buy and read. Even if it’s not precisely impossible, it’s still exceedingly unlikely, and that essential implausibility of the writing life is something that never goes away. And if I’ve managed to come even this far, it’s because I’ve learned to forget how impossible it really is.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

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