Colonized by words
PANAMA CITY — I have a phrase taped to the top edge of my laptop screen. The two short sentences are from dialogue spoken by an otherworldly character in a short story by Neil Gaiman.
The story, "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," follows a couple of high school boys who are searching through unfamiliar streets for a party where, they are assured, there will be girls.
They find a party, but it's not the one they were looking for. In case you might be intrigued enough to read the story, I won't say much more.
Except this: At least one of the girls in the house, Triolet, is not local. She's of a race of beings who realized their world was dying, and they translated themselves into a poem that would outlive them. Once another race hears their poem, they are transformed by it; they became part of it and are compelled to share it further, keeping the memory of a dead race alive as they "colonize" the minds of others.
I thought that was beautiful. I have been colonized in that way — the words of a poem or a story (and in some cases, a film or song) changing me deep within (or, perhaps, describing a state of being that already existed but was unexpressed until those words), moving me in such a manner that I not only long to share those words but also feel a kinship with them.
Maybe something in the DNA alters. The brain chemistry shifts. And a writer who may have passed from this realm hundreds of years before I learned to read becomes a treasured portion of who I am. Alive again.
I'm not talking about the quotes that everybody picks up from popular movies, like "I'll be back," or "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse," or even, "There's no place like home" (though I can see how that last one might resonate).
Something deeper. I can quote "Buckaroo Banzai" or "Big Trouble in Little China" all day, happily so, but never feel like my life is somehow richer. Lighter, yes. "Funner," even.
(I've written here before about a quote from the film "Princess Mononoke," when the protagonist, Ashitaka, is asked why he has come. He answers, "To see with eyes unclouded by hate." That movie is full of stunning lines like that.)
So what quotes live on in you? What writers, still alive and working or long dead and returned to the dust, are resurrected in your recollection of their immortal words?
My author friend Kathy Holzapfel offered this answer: "A line that sticks with me daily is: 'I make my meaning — or else I don't,' from Dr. Eric Maisel's book, 'Brainstorm — Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions.' I read the book expecting a discourse on productivity, but the delightful surprise was a whole chapter on meaning. I'd always thought of meaning as something obscure assigned by the divine — an assignment most likely given on a day I skipped school."
Kathy goes on to explain that Maisel defines meaning as, "something I choose, something that inspires me. Picking my own meaning does not require the buy-in or approval of anyone but me, and there are no esoteric rules requiring nobility and self-sacrifice. It was freeing, thought-provoking, and simple yet powerful."
Another author friend, Mark Boss, sent me a quote from "Ombria in Shadow" by Patricia A. McKillip: "When he held a candle across the threshold, the black swallowed the fire completely. When he tried to step across it, he felt nothing beneath his foot. Sometimes he heard rain, a bird-cry, wind soughing through tall trees; mostly he was aware only of an intimation of vastness, silence, as though he stood at the edge of a world."
Mark explained: "This is what it is like to write a story, to face page after page, all blank, all full of possibilities. It is terrifying. It is also tremendous fun."
And what started this? The idea that a poem (and another's life) continues through us, alive another generation. In the story, Triolet is interrupted as she begins to share herself — her poem. Her next words, as taped on my laptop, are:
"I am not finished. There is yet more of me."
"How to Talk to Girls at Parties" by Neil Gaiman won the Locus Award for Best Short Story in 2007. It has been adapted as a graphic novella with art by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, published in 2016 by Dark Horse Comics; and as a motion picture in 2017 by director John Cameron Mitchell, who co-wrote the screenplay with Philippa Goslett.