Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Phantom Tollbooth

My ten great books #7: The Westing Game

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Of the hundreds of novels that I must have read between the ages of eight and twelve, the three that have stuck with me the most are The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. The first two get the lion’s share of love, and not without reason: we like to reward children’s books that leave their youthful readers with valuable lessons. The Phantom Tollbooth, as I’ve written elsewhere, is the best fictional handbook to being alive I’ve ever found, and A Wrinkle in Time contains one of the most moving passages in all of young adult literature, when its protagonist, Meg, realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz. The italics are mine:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

Compared to such peers, The Westing Game might seem like a trifle, “a puzzle mystery,” as it says right there on its paperback cover. As time goes on, though, it’s the one that impresses me the most. It’s every bit the equal of the other two in terms of invention, and it belongs on any short list of the great mystery novels. (A glance at Raskin’s notes only underlines how much care, thought, and sheer cleverness had to go into it at every stage.) If it had been written in French and translated into English—which is impossible to imagine—we might put it on a shelf with the works of Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec, who founded a movement defined as “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.”

Instead, The Westing Game was written by Ellen Raskin, a homegrown genius of a particularly American kind. It’s revealing that she began her career as one of our great commercial illustrators, designing the covers for over a thousand books, including the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time. All four of her fantastic novels have a way of talking among themselves, in what Nabokov, another precursor, called “a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another,” and it reflects the sensibility of an artist used to thinking in terms of the relationships of elements on the page. Reading it again recently, I was amazed by how much it accomplishes in fewer than two hundred pages. It invents an ingenious mystery that doubles as an ergodic text for preteens. Unlike most mystery novelists, who give us a series of names that blur together as soon as we put the book down, Raskin creates over a dozen characters whom I remember vividly after the passage of decades. (Every few weeks or so, I seem to mutter to myself, for no particular reason: “Ed Purple-Fruit. Ed Plum.”) The cast is diverse without making a point of it, and everyone is allowed to be smart, foolish, empathetic, obtuse, and funny. Its wit is incredibly sharp and consistent. There are no villains, aside perhaps from Grace Wexler, whose casual racism is skewered so beautifully that it’s easy to undervalue it. Best of all, there’s no implication, as we sometimes get from L’Engle or Juster, that we’re meant to take the story as a moral lesson. The Phantom Tollbooth turns into something like propaganda for curiosity, while The Westing Game achieves much the same goal—it’s impossible to read it without hungering for more puzzles—simply by serving as an example of what a curious mind can create. As a result, it points more emphatically than any other book at the kind of novels I ended up writing and reading as an adult. Unlike the others, it wasn’t trying to change lives. But it sure changed mine.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2017 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #6: Gravity’s Rainbow

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Gravity's Rainbow

If there’s a thread that runs through many of my favorite works of fiction, it’s that they’re often the work of massively erudite authors who are deeply ambivalent—or ironic—about their own learning. Norton Juster of The Phantom Tollbooth and the tireless annotators of the Sherlock Holmes stories seem to be content with knowledge for its own sake, but as for the rest, Borges ends up trapped in his own labyrinth; The Magic Mountain constructs an edifice of ideas on the verge of being blown up by a meaningless war; Proust notices everything but envies those creatures of instinct, like Albertine or Françoise, who can relate to the world in simpler terms. Gravity’s Rainbow may be the ultimate expression of this discomfort, an unbelievably dense, allusive, and omniscient novel about the futility of information itself. No other work of contemporary fiction is so packed with technical lore, references, jokes, and ideas, and its technical virtuosity is staggering. Thomas Pynchon has occasionally been dismissed as a shallow trickster or showoff, but his style is inseparable from his larger concerns. Only by writing the encyclopedic novel to end all others can he qualify himself to sound a deadly serious warning, which is that all the plans, structure, and information in the world can only wither and die in the face of more fundamental truths: death, loneliness, dissolution.

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty to enjoy: limericks, pie fights, burlesque imitations of vaudeville and musical theater, puns of exquisite corniness (the German city of Bad Karma, the Japanese Ensign Morituri), and countless vignettes of incredible beauty, cruelty, and inventiveness. That last word has a way of being applied to works that don’t deserve it, but here, it’s fully justified: Gravity’s Rainbow invents more across its seven hundred pages than any other novel I know—every sentence threatens to fly out of control, only to be restrained by its author’s uncanny mastery of tone—and the effect is both exhilarating and alienating. There aren’t any real characters here, just marionettes with amusing names, and there’s never a sense that this is anything more than a construct of Pynchon’s limitless imagination. (There’s a good case to be made that this was a conscious artistic choice, and that depth of character would only make the novel more unwieldy than it already is.) Like most encyclopedic works, it includes parodies of its own ambitions, like Mitchell Prettyplace’s definitive eighteen-volume study of King Kong, including “exhaustive biographies of everyone connected with the film, extras, grips, lab people,” or Brigadier Pudding’s Things That Can Happen in European Politics, a comprehensive analysis of possible political developments that is constantly overtaken by real events. Despite the occasional glimmer of hope, it’s futile, of course. But on any given page, as we’re swept up by Pynchon’s enormous talent, it doesn’t seem so futile after all.

Written by nevalalee

May 15, 2017 at 9:00 am

A wrinkle in life

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Madeline L'Engle

Last week, it was announced that the director Ava DuVernay was looking for mixed-race and minority actors to play the children in her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. The news delighted me to no end, and not just because I come from a mixed racial background myself—although that’s certainly part of it. It’s the kind of decision that might seem surprising at first, but then comes to feel utterly right: I’ve spent most of the last hour leafing through my battered paperback copy of Madeline L’Engle’s novel, which I’ve owned since I was eight years old, and one line after another seems charged with new life and meaning when I view it through that lens. A few years ago, I wrote of L’Engle: “Her work was my first glimpse of what I’ve since come to think of as the novel of ideas in its most rewarding form: richly imagined, emotional, and dramatic works of fiction whose central subject is the search for meaning in a universe dominated by science and information, which are really forms of protection against the unknown.” And it’s a journey that has been informed by my own multiracial heritage in ways that I haven’t always appreciated. When you’re of mixed race, you often end up searching for meaning on your own, either by arriving at one combination or another of the elements in your family story or by assembling a new value system from first principles. And I suspect that I was so strongly attracted to A Wrinkle in Time in part because it was one of the first books I’d read that was explicitly about that process. 

In my original post about the book, I noted that it’s essentially an episodic and didactic novel, but we don’t tend to notice this—in the way we do with, say, the Alice stories or The Phantom Tollbooth—because it’s so tightly constructed. It also approaches its characters in a vivid, intimate way that conceals how much of it is structured to function as an allegory. I wouldn’t say that Meg, Charles Wallace, or Calvin are more real to me than Alice or Milo, but they’re portrayed with more incidental detail and warmth, so that they come to seem more like real boys and girls whom we could actually meet one day. Unlike their earlier counterparts, who can seem oddly detached in the face of the strange characters they encounter, Meg, in particular, is vibrating with wounded feeling, which isn’t an accident. A Wrinkle in Time, like the other books I mentioned, is ultimately a story about a young person’s education, but it isn’t primarily an intellectual one, but one of emotion. You can even read each of its worlds as a place in which Meg is forced to fully confront a single emotion in its purest form, from joy on Uriel to freezing grief and forgiveness on Ixchel to mindless conformism on Camazotz. She emerges from each chapter with a lesson, but they’re gently conveyed, and they made less of a conscious impression on me at the time than the book’s vision of a life spent among ideas, which flew like sparks from the characters whenever they spoke.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

But the book’s message is also deeply Christian—more so, perhaps, than even the works of C.S. Lewis, which I admire in more complicated ways. Lewis, an epic fantasist who owed his religious conversion to none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, thought naturally in eschatological terms: Aslan dies on the stone table, but he returns at the head of an army to pounce triumphantly on the White Witch. (This doesn’t even get at The Last Battle, which I read with a kind of horrified fascination as a child, with its literal division of the characters at the end of the world into the sheep and the goats.) A Wrinkle in Time puts its scriptural sources right there in the text: Charles Wallace’s bedtime reading of choice is Genesis, and the song of the winged centaurs of Uriel comes straight from the Book of Isaiah. But I think L’Engle’s religion is more subtle and meaningful. When asked to name the great fighters against the Black Thing, Charles Wallace cries out: “Jesus! Why of course, Jesus!” But they also include Einstein and Buddha and Gandhi. And when Meg is asked to confront IT, the monstrous brain that rules Camazotz, her only weapon is love itself, which leads to the following extraordinary passage:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

This is just a few pages from the end of the book, and Meg resolves her dilemma by choosing to love her lost brother Charles Wallace instead. But the line to which I keep returning, and which I’m not sure I even noticed in my first dozen readings, is: “Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.” I think that this unheralded sentence is the secret heart of the book. A Wrinkle in Time comes as close as any work of literature I know to sincerely honoring the man of whom one of the few things we can say for sure is that he told us to love our enemies. (We also know that he was a member of an oppressed religious group ruled by an imperial power.) Yet it also understands how difficult this is, and even Meg, at the end of her journey, falls short of that ultimate example. It’s a line that reflects the personality of L’Engle herself, who was refreshingly empathetic and pragmatic in her faith, and whose books were always more about the search than about any answers that they provided. This search is a birthright that belongs to everyone, but to children of mixed or minority backgrounds even more urgently than most. Their construction of a self, of a personal history, and of their understanding of their own parents isn’t something that they confront in adolescence, as many others do, but as early as kindergarten—which turns them all into something like Charles Wallaces. You don’t need to be of mixed race to love this book. But it adds an interesting wrinkle.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2016 at 8:38 am

Character counts

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Novel spreadsheet with chapter lengths

A couple of years ago, I published a post called “Writing by Numbers,” in which I described the unconventional approach I took to editing my novel Eternal Empire. I’d already made several passes through the manuscript with an eye to cuts, but it was still nowhere close to 100,000 words, which was the maximum I’d contracted to deliver. What I did, in the end, was make a spreadsheet in which I recorded the length of each chapter and how much it fell short or exceeded the average. Chapters that ran long for no good reason became targets for pruning. (I was especially hard on transitional chapters, which included material that was necessary to advance the story, but which were relatively sedate compared to the central set pieces and action scenes.) And it all sort of worked. The manuscript shed several thousand words, a line or two at a time, and I still credit this quantitative approach with guiding my scalpel to the right places. In all likelihood, if I’d tackled the edit more intuitively, I would have cut most of it anyway, but the numbers gave me the push I needed.

In retrospect, though, I’ve concluded that the numbers weren’t the key factor here. The spreadsheet was less important in itself than as a kind of conceptual screen, a way of regarding a familiar manuscript from a new angle. Revision hinges on the ability to read your own work as it if had been written by a stranger, or, as Zadie Smith says, even an enemy, and nearly every relevant strategy has this end result in mind. The simplest way to get some distance is to take some time off—ideally four to six weeks, and it’s even better if you’ve been working on an unrelated project in the meantime. Changing the typeface, font size, or margins has a similarly alienating effect, although I’m rarely brave enough to go that far. The same is true of reading the work in a different setting, out loud, or on paper rather than on your laptop. And the quantitative approach has an analogous effect: it directs your attention to areas of the story you might never have noticed if you were merely reading through it with an author’s eye. Any target word count is inherently arbitrary, but that’s exactly why it works.

A page from my rough draft

I got to thinking about this again after a friend recommended that I read the thoughts of ecologist Stephen Heard on the subject of revision. Heard is speaking to an audience of academic writers, and his advice has more to do with submitting journal articles for review than with writing a novel, but many of his points are still valuable. He covers some of the same tips that I mention above—reviewing your work in a different font, in a different location, or even at a time of day when you’re tired—and he has a particularly interesting take on revising for length: “Manuscript lengths are most often expressed as word counts, but I suggest you work with character counts instead, because replacing long words with short ones is just as helpful to the reader as reducing the number of words.” This takes the quantitative approach to the extreme: the story is no longer a series of pages, or even individual words, but a string of characters, each of which has equal weight when it comes to reducing the length. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have a feeling that it might turn out to be a useful tool, especially in nonfiction, even if its effects are close to subliminal. 

Obviously, an approach like this might be more practical in reworking a 2,000-word essay than a 100,000-word novel, for which it feels a little like digging a hole through a cliff with a needle, as the Humbug does in The Phantom Tollbooth. But while it might not be entirely feasible for longer works, it can’t help but make you more aware about the average length of your words, which can only be a good thing. It reminds me of an analogy given by the great Christopher Alexander, who describes how we can check whether a metal surface is smooth by inking a standard block and rubbing it against the face we’re testing:

If our metal face is not quite level, ink marks appear on it at those points which are higher than the rest. We grind these high spots, and try to fit it against the block again. The face is level when it fits the block perfectly, so that there are no high spots which stand out any more.

What’s nice about this approach is that the evidence is unambiguous—the marks show you exactly where the surface needs grinding. In fiction, the result doesn’t need to be a uniform face: all good novels have peaks and valleys, alternating rhythms, and variety of pacing. But the first step is to figure out what you have. And as in most things in life, the numbers can reveal patterns that the eye alone never could.

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2015 at 9:21 am

Is it Catch-22…or The Phantom Tollbooth?

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on October 13, 2011.

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of two of the most extraordinary works in all of American literature, Catch-22 and The Phantom Tollbooth, which were published, remarkably enough, only a few weeks apart in 1961. What’s especially fascinating about these two books, one of which has long been one of my favorites and the other which I read only recently, is that while they’re rarely mentioned in the same sentence, they’re often startlingly similar, almost as if they’d been written by the same man. (And I’m not even counting the fact that they both have characters named Milo.)

What follows is a series of quotations, some slightly modified, from both novels. Can you tell which is which?

  1. Since he had nothing better to do well in, he did well in school.
  2. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered.
  3. Life in school was no different than life had been for him all along. Whoever he was with always wanted him to be with someone else.
  4. Each man looked very much like the other, and some looked even more like each other than they did like themselves.
  5. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.
  6. “That’s absurd.” “That may be true, but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong?”
  7. “I’d give everything I own to him. But since I don’t own everything, I can’t give everything to him, can I?”
  8. “All I meant was that perhaps it wasn’t too important.” “Of course it’s not important,” the man snarled angrily. “I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I thought it was important.”
  9. Most of the official documents that came to him did not concern him at all. The vast majority consisted of allusions to prior communications which he had never seen or heard of. There was never any need to look them up, for the instructions were invariably to disregard.
  10. As always, they moved in ominous circles, for if one said “here,” the other said “there,” and the third always agreed perfectly with both of them. And, since they always settled their differences by doing what none of them really wanted, they rarely got anywhere at all—and neither did anyone they met.
  11. The only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since they agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.
  12. “I only treat illnesses that don’t exist: that way, if I can’t cure them, there’s no harm done—just one of the precautions of the trade.”
  13. The leader of the team of doctors was a dignified, solicitous gentlemen who held one finger up directly in front of him and demanded, “How many fingers do you see?” “Two,” he said. “How many fingers do you see now?” asked the doctor, holding up two. “Two,” he said. “And how many now?” asked the doctor, holding up none. “Two,” he said. The doctor’s face wreathed with a smile. “By Jove, he’s right,” he declared jubilantly. “He does see everything twice.”
  14. “But why do only unimportant things?” “Think of all the trouble it saves. If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. Because there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.”
  15. Actually, there were many buildings that he had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one here. It was truly a splendid structure, and he throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.
  16. He invariably leaped before he looked and never cared where he was going as long as he knew why he shouldn’t have gone to where he’d been.
  17. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
  18. “We don’t want to get anything done; we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help. You see, it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along.”
  19. His father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county.
  20. “You see, to tall men I’m a midget, and to short men I’m a giant; to the skinny ones I’m a fat man, and to the fat ones I’m a thin man. That way I can hold four jobs at once. As you can see, though, I’m neither tall nor short nor fat nor thin. In fact, I’m quite ordinary, but there are so many ordinary men that no one asks their opinion about anything.”
  21. “I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American.”
  22. “Are you ready to be sentenced?” “Only a judge can sentence you.” “Good point,” replied the policeman, taking off his cap and putting on a long black robe. “I am also the judge.”
  23. As a member of the Action Board, the lieutenant was one of the judges who would weigh the merits of the case against the accused as presented by the prosecutor. The lieutenant was also the prosecutor. The accused had an officer defending him. The officer defending him was the lieutenant.
  24. And the crowd waved and cheered wildly, for, while they didn’t care at all about anyone arriving, they were always very pleased to see someone go.

Answers: Odd-numbered quotations are from Catch-22, even ones from The Phantom Tollbooth—and it’s almost enough to make me wonder if Joseph Heller and Norton Juster were the same man. (You know, like Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger.)

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2013 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #5: The Phantom Tollbooth

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The Phantom Tollbooth

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

The Phantom Tollbooth is the best fictional handbook I’ve ever seen on how to be alive. It’s supposedly written for children, but if anything, the lessons it holds are even more urgent for adults, who need to be reminded from time to time of what a young child understands instinctively. I’ve noted before that you can’t fully appreciate the horrors of the Terrible Trivium, “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit,” until you’ve held your first job. This isn’t to say that children don’t understand boredom, busywork, or meaningless wastes of time: when we romanticize our own childhoods, it’s easy to forget that much of a child’s life is spent waiting around for something to happen. The difference is that adults construct these traps for themselves. Norton Juster’s great book is a manual of escape, not into fantasy, but into reality—that is, into the possibilities of life that we ignore because we tend to take them for granted. Other children’s fantasy novels offer up a vision of a world that is more beautiful than ours, and they leave us wishing that we could visit Narnia or Hogwarts just for a little while. Juster leaves you hungry for the books and people and ideas that are there for you to explore right now, if you’re willing to master a few simple tools: words, numbers, perspective, time, curiosity, and sense of humor. As the Senses Taker warns:

I’ll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion—and, but for one thing, you’d be helpless yet…I cannot take your sense of humor, and, with it, you’ve nothing to fear from me.

Of course, none of these lessons would count for anything if the book itself weren’t such great fun. Juster sometimes reads like Douglas R. Hofstader or Joseph Heller for the grade school set: he loves puns, wordplay, and sly inversions of familiar ideas, but all of these good jokes are windows into deeper truths. It’s all too easy to jump to Conclusions, which in The Phantom Tollbooth is a very crowded island, but you can only get back after a long swim through the Sea of Knowledge. You emerge from the Doldrums—where the schedule, with its four naps, looks a lot like the routine of the residents in The Magic Mountain—by thinking. When you’re faced with such terrors as the Triple Demons of Compromise, the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, and the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, your best chance of rescue lies in marshaling all the wisdom you’ve acquired along the way. And you especially need to remember the very important thing about Milo’s quest that couldn’t be told to him until he returned:

“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king…
“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.”

It’s a lesson I’ve tried to remember, with varying degrees of success, for most of my life—but I occasionally need a reminder. And thanks to Milo, and Norton Juster, I always know where to find it.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2013 at 9:00 am

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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