When human beings, or even dinosaurs, fail to deliver consolation in times of doubt, uncertainty, and maybe even a little despair, there are always libraries.
For instance …
This afternoon, I needed to get out of the house. It’s been a bad week, in some ways. Not so bad in others. One part of me wanted to just sit at home, lie on the bed, and contemplate my misfortune. Luckily, I recognized that doing so never solved anything. I have a lot of work to do – work that I want to avoid, and still have to some degree.
And, of course, I have writing to do as well, which I don’t want to avoid, but I had a hard time working myself to get any done. I’m in the dumps.
My fall class at Columbia was canceled.
And this time, I can’t really blame the administration, the department, or anyone but the students. They just didn’t sign up.
Not enough of them. Just nine, I think. And I thank those nine for signing up. And I also apologize that now there won’t be a course for them to take.
But when you get ready to put on a show, so to speak, and no one comes, you can’t help feeling bad. Feeling like a failure. Or an outcast. I have some experience in feeling like an outcast.
And when you feel like an outcast, it’s very difficult to motivate yourself to soldier on and produce new work. Even if you’ve had some relative success, all you can remember are the failures, the empty rooms, the silence.
So, sitting in the library, I started writing, then looked around. Who needs any more stories? I’m surrounded by five thousand books. Who needs to read anything by me? What the hell do I know? I think science fiction will not only save literature, but maybe save the world. How dumb can you get? If readers don’t want Tiptree, Delany, Sturgeon, Lafferty, on and on and on, who the hell wants me?
Well, this is no good, I thought. I got up and started checking out the shelves, looking for something to read to remind me what good words look like when put together. Good sentences. Good storytelling. I also wanted to see what books I have loved are still hogging shelf space. On previous scans of the shelves, I’d discovered a number of my favorites had been “disappeared” to make more space. Catalog searches proved they were gone. Kaput. Outta here.
But I did find this: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.
Memory is the ultimate censor, but if I recall correctly, Jackson’s novel was the first “grownup” novel I read, excluding books by Wells and Stevenson, which some considered “kid stuff” (the Wells novels were in editions specifically marketed to children).
I had also included the novel in a list of books that made a great impression on me or were favorites. I had read Hill House in many years. I retained my very first copy of it in my library, but handle it with care, afraid it might turn to dust if I finger through it too rapidly.
Did it still retain its power?
I took the edition off the shelf, flipped it open, and started reading at a random page. It’s early in the novel: Eleanor’s car trip to Hill House. It’s a section that fascinated me when I first read it as a kid and which still fascinates me. You would think a boy, especially a boy living in Chicago, in Garfield Ridge – a place of mediocre little schools and mean-spirited, mediocre little minds, a paradise for the venal and the superficial – would be bored by all this. “Come on! Let’s get to the house! Let’s get to all the haunted stuff!”
But no. I didn’t know who Eleanor was, but somehow I detected a kindred spirit in her. She didn’t feel at home at home. She is wandering, heading off to Hill House, daydreaming along the way.
She stops at a “country restaurant” and notices the family at another table, the only other customers at that time of day: parents, a young boy and a little girl.
… The light from the stream below touched the ceiling and the polished tables and glanced along the little girl’s curls, and the little girl’s mother said calmly, “She wants her cup of stars.”
Indeed, yes, Eleanor thought; indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course.
“Her little cup,” the mother was explaining, smiling apologetically at the waitress, who was thunderstruck at the thought that the mill’s good country milk was not rich enough for the little girl. “It has stars in the bottom, and she always drinks her milk from it at home. She calls it her cup of stars because she can see the stars while she drinks her milk.” The waitress nodded, unconvinced, and the mother told the little girl, “You’ll have your milk from your cup of stars tonight when we get home. But just for now, just to be a very good little girl, will you take a little milk from the glass?”
Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.
“You’re spoiling her,” the father said. “She ought not to be allowed these whims.”
“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.
When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gray stream tumbled along below her. …
This is an incredible moment that a lesser author would have probably cut in an early draft – “No, let’s get to the action. Let’s not dawdle.” Or an editor would have made the same suggestion. “No one wants to read about country restaurants! Hell, let’s get this show on the road!”
But the show is on the road. The show is Eleanor. And in this little moment we get the answer to the question I keep asking students and fellow writers when I read their work, and so often – so very, very often – they cannot answer with even faint success: “Why the hell should I care what happens to this person?”
Eleanor wants her cup of stars.
We all want our cup of stars.
Eleanor knows. She was trapped into being like everyone else, at least on the outside. You concede your cup of stars and for the rest of your life you struggle to get it back. Eleanor and the little girl exchange this wisdom silently, and it is not simply Eleanor imparting wisdom to the little girl – she isn’t. The little girl is imparting as much to Eleanor as Eleanor is warning the little girl.
I don’t pretend to know what great literature is. I believe, perhaps wrongly, that I know good storytelling, and good writing, and how to bring a notion across to its most powerful effect. And this is certainly great storytelling, great writing – a brief moment, a stop on the road to destiny that tells us almost everything we need to know about Eleanor while revealing a startling awareness of our own secret dreams.
There’s a lot of talk these days, especially among folks of my generation, about whether books we read when we were young “stand up” today. Maybe they have a point, because a lot of what they read (me too) was a lot of crap. Earnest crap. Exciting crap. But … crap.
But then I think: stand up? To whom? Who has appointed these arthritic bozos the Grand Jury of Literature? They were stupid enough to read and love the crap in their youth. I should take their judgments seriously now?
Perhaps it makes one feel cool and wise now to eviscerate the giants of our youth, to call “Fraud!” and “Foul!” on former heroes. Perhaps that’s an exercise everyone needs to perform to understand how the world changes and how we change within that world.
But perhaps a few moments should be spent not in judging how the works we read in youth stand up for us, but how well we stand up against the works we read.
Have we kept our cup of stars?
I went back to my reading table and scribbled out a few more pages of words, most of which I will probably cross out and try to come up with better ones, reminding myself of something I’ve been telling myself a lot: All great stories are love stories. All great stories are about loneliness. These two sentences are not mutually exclusive.
Writing is never easy, but the only way you get it done is to keep going through the tangle of uncertainty and fear and emptiness. Take a break, enjoy your coffee, but at the end of road, Hill House awaits.