You see, I don't believe the world exists, as silly as that seems. I'm not convinced that my warehouse of definitions actually explains or identifies anything. It's like the old question: Is the blue I see the same blue that you see? I have my plans and expectations for the next hour, but who knows what will happen? Way back in 11th grade, I read a novel in which the narrator says that it takes 8 minutes for the light of the sun to reach the earth. So we might be basking on the beach for 7 minutes and 59 seconds, then in the next second turn into ice cubes.
Yes, I realize this is unlikely, but it's not one hundred percent impossible. There is still a nano-fraction of possibility that the sun might in the next moment blink out. When I was 17, this was a revelation. It meant that certainty couldn't exist until the event or object or whatever in question was past. Even as I write it's possible that the sun might have flared out four minutes ago, and I have only four minutes more to spend on my blog.
Foolish, you say. But one of the main reasons that I write is to map the world, to give palpability to the frighteningly impalpable.Language is the brush I use to give color to the shadows. I would hate to think how many words I've written, but surely it's around five million. Trees shake when they see me coming. And with these words I've created an illusory world that is more real to me than the so-called real world; that is, if the so-called real world actually exists, which I doubt.
I once cooked some friends a dinner that included chunks of macerated eggplant. It was very tasty and when my friends left they all thanked me for the fabulous meal. There then followed a dozen hours of dreadful diarrhea. It happened to me; it happened to my wife; it happened to my friends. This took place maybe 30 years ago and I've steered clear of eggplant ever since. No way will I be tricked again.
But the point is that ever since my eggplant fiasco, when friends have thanked me for cooking them a wonderful meal, I say, "Don't be too hasty." I beg them to wait at least a dozen hours before thanking me for anything. It makes sense, right? Of course, the possibility of giving my friends a dose of food poisoning is small, but so is the possibility of the sun flaring out at any given moment.
This isn't just me. The act of knocking on wood to avoid calamities big and little goes back to tapping on a tree to entreat the protection of Pan, god of the forest. He was not always goatlike and fuzzy; from his name came the words pandemonium and panic.
Alchemists during the Renaissance got into serious trouble by thinking they could compete with God by taking the laws of nature and turning them on their heads, as it were. Changing lead into gold was only one of their smaller projects.
Writers have at times gotten into similar trouble — that to create a world, even if fictional, is to challenge God. Consider the Muslim prohibition against duplicating the human figure in paint, stone, whatever. It's seen as a challenge and thus an insult to Allah.
As I said, one of the reasons I write is to prove to myself that the world exists. I change sense data into language, and I fuss with the language until my duplicated world seems to make sense. We in the United States live in a good luck corner. Things may be bad for many people, but they are worse elsewhere. Looking at Timbuktu on Google Earth, I see no Internet cafes, dance clubs, or singles bars. And I doubt that anyone in Timbuktu receives packages from Omaha Steaks.
So in The Burn Palace the dominating metaphor has to do with safety versus nonsafety, which may be danger or just uncertainty. I take the good luck corner of my fictitious town of Brewster, Rhode Island, and introduce an increasing amount of ill fortune and bad luck, an increasing amount of stress. Any thriller does this. It introduces a new and dangerous reality that challenges the old reality that existed at the beginning of the book. Then, through the efforts of the protagonist, the old world returns and seems to triumph, but — and this is often the point — a new knowledge is introduced. If an awful thing can happen once in such a nice place, then it can happen again. We are never safe. And we, as readers, love it. We have read this story a million times. We've seen it on TV and we've seen the movies. The realization that we are never entirely safe is what we call wisdom. It makes us feel safe.
This dominating metaphor first appeared in my poetry. I realized some time ago that a subject that appeared in many forms in my poems is the moment when a child comes to understand that the world he or she had seen as benign and wondrous is in fact dispassionate and uncertain. Maybe this understanding wouldn't come all at once; maybe it's a growing comprehension. What had appeared safe comes to be seen as unreliable, even perilous. I expect every child experiences this to a degree, experiences a moment of change when the world seems to refashion itself into something unreliable. Some children learn it as babies; others may hang on until adolescence.
I didn't decide to write about this subject. As I said, one writes to discover why one is writing, and what I sometimes write about is that moment of change when the world becomes different: safe vs. unsafe, benign vs. uncertain. This is why I say I write to prove the world exists; I write to try to define the nature of that world, and I do it again and again. I expect most writers have a dominating metaphor, a dominating idea; and they write in order to make sense of it, perhaps without even knowing it.
Most likely that same idea could have led me to become a doctor or lawyer, policeman or bum, but because I loved stories and loved writing and because my writing was praised by teachers and family — I'm talking about in early grade school — I continued to do it until I dedicated my life to it. This is an oversimplification but it's also true, and it goes back to what I was saying the other day about our choices being determined. I had no idea that I had a dominating idea — I expect a person has more than one — that was determining or at least affecting what I wrote, and I didn't discover this until late middle age. There didn't seem to be much I could do about it, and it made no sense to try to get rid of it, since it carried the emotion that fueled and energized the poem or novel. All I could do, I thought, was to guide it and try not to be repetitive, or too repetitive.
These dominating ideas determine how the writer sees and tries to understand the world. Some writers see the world as unfair and that belief colors all their writing. They express that idea through writing because that is what they think they are best at. This is why so many writers write without the promise of one red cent. They write for the writing itself; they write to define their particular world. The satisfaction that the writer feels when he or she has finished something that seems successful comes from several quarters, one being a new, but temporary, sense of safety.
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Stephen Dobyns is the author of more than 30 novels and poetry collections, including The Church of the Dead Girls, Cold Dog Soup, and Cemetery Nights. Among his many honors and awards are a Melville Cane Award, Pushcart Prizes, National Poetry Series Prize, and three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.
Books mentioned in this post
Stephen Dobyns is the author of The Burn Palace