The Ocean at the End of the Lane

9780062255655book by Neil Gaiman

annotation by Lee Stoops

“A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change.”

~ Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the end of the Lane (170)

The more I read, the more I want to find stories that can disregard rules (carefully or not, at least with full knowledge not only of the rules but also of their reasons) and fuse genres. These are the stories that address my needs as a writer and offer permission to really dig the story out in whatever way it insists on its own excision. The way a story is unearthed, or unearths itself, matters because each has extensive power to change the way readers see the world and the way they envision themselves in it. That power (or, potential) is not the point, though. Responsibility is the point. The writer’s responsibility is to his characters, to their world, because those things matter to the reader for more than just entertainment. Sure, I started reading the way most do: for some kind of entertaining escape. But it’s not enough, now. I still want that escape, but in doing so, I want the promise I’ll come back changed. For me, the stories that make familiar things strange make that easier. Set a story in reality and embody it with surrealism, and I start to believe almost anything is possible. The human being in me loudly claims it knows what’s real and what’s not, but the storyteller/lover in me begins to ceaselessly chant “I want to believe.” And that is where a writer like Neil Gaiman with his The Ocean at the End of the Lane both adheres to his responsibility as a storyteller and sends his characters (and readers) into an adventure of actual, possible mythic proportions.

Typically, when I write about writing, I look for specific language and craft techniques or examples at play – the things I can identify as either working or not – because identification usually leads to a better understanding of how I apply myself to my own work. In the practicing of my craft, I hope that I’m honing skills, sure, but more than that, I want to be growing in my awareness. While I could look at Gaiman’s short novel from a strict craft/construction/language perspective, I think it deserves a different lens – a bigger picture lens, and I hope to do that here.

The pond was smaller than I remembered…the pond that Lettie Hempstock had called…

It wasn’t the sea, was it?

She would be older than I am now, Lettie Hempstock. She was only a handful of years older than I was back then, for all her funny talk. She was eleven. I was…what was I? It was after the bad birthday party. I knew that. So I would have been seven.

And it wasn’t the sea. It was the ocean.

Lettie Hempstock’s ocean.

I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything (7-8).

Gaiman’s story opens with a short, intentionally ambiguous prologue, narrated by the adult version of the protagonist, arriving, serendipitously, at a small pond he knew during a short window of his boyhood that he only begins to remember while coming upon it (and will likely forget again once he leaves). His memories arrive all at once, in a wave that forces the story backward in time, the entirety of it to be told by the same narrator from his seven year old point of view. And though his narrator takes on the voice of a young boy, Gaiman’s done something significant: he’s established authority in the voice – authority for an ageless character to tell an ageless story about memory and magic and humanity. But more than that, the grown human nature of the story’s introduction give the reader permission to be swept away by a story that is full of things unbelievable: a pond that is also an ocean, a young girl and her family of women who seem to know everything and have lived forever, monsters who take various forms and remain invisible at times and to the willingly doubtful.

But through the telling of the story, Gaiman’s narrator calls on familiar tokens of human youth and frustration to lend even greater credence to the narrator’s somehow-forgotten-and-then-remembered impossible childhood story. The boy’s birthday party is a failure. He has no friends. A man his parents rent his room to runs over his cat. His parents refuse to listen to him. His sister is vile. Everything in life is unfair and pitted against him. And then the monsters show up. So, maybe it’s not just youthful themes. Gaiman, with clean prose and a personable, reasonably- (and intelligently-) voiced young narrator, has sneaked in those themes readers generally consider abandoned in adolescence but have really just relabeled as adult contentions.

“…Why do you think she’s scared of anything? She’s a grown-up, isn’t she? Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.”

“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups…” She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” She thought for a moment. Then she smiled. “Except for Granny, of course” (112).

And along the way, he injects the narrative with bits of enormous wonderings, universal truths, (often) unspoken things. Rather than bludgeon the reader with these notes on humanity and the power of story, he gives them to the narrator, the narrator’s mysterious friends, and even the monsters. At the end of the boy’s narrative, the narrator says, “A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn’t I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don’t change” (170). His questions and statements (taken with any tone they might elicit for a reader) force similar questions and statements, oppositional, or not, from the reader. They force, in some subtle and in other not-so-subtle ways, growing consideration.

I started writing for the same reason I started reading. And when my reading needs shifted, so did my writing needs. Daily, it becomes clearer that the process is not a series of stops and starts but a continuum of shifts in need. Stories like The Ocean at the End of the Lane affirm the continuum by illuminating the evolution of need. It’s not so much a disregarding of rules or an eschewing of genre as it is a welcoming of different tactics to the widening melting pot. I want to be a writer who makes room for anything that needs representation in my work. Neil Gaiman is a storyteller who proves there’s always room, as long as there’s consideration.

Wonderbook

9781419704420_p0_v2_s260x420

book by Jeff VanderMeer

illustrations by Jeremy Zerfoss

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have this compulsion to buy people books—books they MUST have. But long ago I learned that it’s impossible to sustain a family on that impulse, so instead, I recommend.  The recommendations frequently come with a bossy, “Seriously, you HAVE to get a copy, you MUST read this,” or run in punishingly long emails about said books filling unwitting friends’ inboxes.

But this year’s recommend,  Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer has gotten a bit out of control, as, since I first laid eyes on it, I want every writer and teacher of writing to have a copy. I would like to lay it in the hands of so many people and have written so many emails and have used giant hand gestures with my students, insisting they each get a copy that, well, it’s getting embarrassing.

It’s difficult to talk about Wonderbook without totally spazzing out about its awesomeness, but fortunately, in this space, it’s not about reviews or raving, it’s about talking about what is useful to us as writers. So I can calm down. And be in control. Right?

Because of its subtitle: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction and the writers who appear in its pages (Neal Gaiman, Ursula K LeGuin, George RR Martin and Michael Moorcock, among others,)  realistic fiction writers or writers not in the genre of science fiction and fantasy may think this book is not for them. And that’s where I start jumping up and down and ranting.

As soon as the book arrived in the mail this past October, I started using charts from its pages to help teach my students (all of whom write a variety of types of fiction at a variety of levels) plot, character, process and whatever my class was discussing in our last few lessons. I can yammer all day about plots, their varieties and patterns, but the plot lizards do so much work in gorgeous images, not to mention the Story vs. Situation dragons (pictured above,) the Storyfish (who brings on the Ass Backwards Fish in the revision section, a gorgeous illustration of exactly what was wrong with a certain element of my novel before a very skilled developmental editor got his hands on it) and the evolutionary Lifecycle of a Story.

What stopped me – totally stopped me – in a gobsmacking way in the book was an illustration of The Middle Zones (116) of story. There on the page, completely illustrated, was something I’d tried explaining to so many writers over years of doing notes for friends or in teaching . From my screenwriting days, I’d called it the Second Act Wall. It’s when the initial steam of starting a script, or novel, poops out. You’ve introduced these characters you had so clearly in your head, the world you’ve put them in, the circumstances that got you excited to write it in the first place, but you have absolutely no idea how to proceed.  In this illustration, one of Jeremy Zerfoss’s little faceless (but totally animated) creatures walks around a chart, saying  things I’ve heard from so many writers who are stuck: “This senseless slog.” “I never should have started.” “I will never get to the end.” “My outline is stupid, method suspect. I no longer know what I’m doing.” The chart provides questions to ask of your manuscript, suggestions how to proceed (or as Diane Sherlock has been known to say, ‘poke it with a stick’), but moves in a circle, demonstrating so completely the utter hell that is the Middle Zone. When you’re in it, you feel you’ll never emerge. Along the edge of this wheel are hopeful words of encouragement and suggestions, “persevere,” “new venue,” “new energy.” And to describe it further is not going to get you any closer to having the book, which, if you are a writer and/or teacher of writing, you should probably do. (Like now.) Because a picture is worth a thousand words and I’ve used up only two-fifty in this chunk.

Useful (and beautiful) diagrams and gorgeous illustrations aside, the book is chock full of very useful and practical writing advice on every stage of writing, from inspiration, through characters, narrative design, world building, revision (progression was an revelatory for me and so useful now even in drafting) and the ecosystem of a story, which is my favorite section in regards to teaching:

 Like living creatures, stories come in a bewildering number of adaptations and mutations. Even within the constraint of written words, incredible variety occurs due to the near-infinite number of possible combinations. Anyone who tells you there are only a dozen types of stories should be viewed with as much suspicion as someone who tells you “all animals are the same.” A penguin is not a hamster; nor is a prawn a sea cucumber, an elephant a squid, an anteater, a dragon. (41)

So often I have students coming in with “rules” they have learned from various craft books, or from cranky teachers who believe that there is only one way to write. And often these rules have shut them down completely. It takes all manner of talking to open these writers up a little, to give them courage in their own process, and to give them the nerve to continue or sometimes to go back to the page at all. The greatest asset of this book is that it speaks gently and kindly to the writer. It contains volumes of information and knowledge, but isn’t bossy or didactic. It is more – like the chart of The Middle Zone – filled with gentle suggestions and useful information to help a writer proceed. Because at the end of the day, at least among the writers I know, we face enough demons, we don’t need an instructor prescribing our various processes.

But we sure could use a big, broad, colorful, but carefully laid out guide full of advice from so many writers who have been there, filled with encouragement, tools and tricks of the trade. This book has tools for novices, but also for pros and, were these words not copyrighted on another infamous Guide, DON’T PANIC (in giant font,) would be completely appropriate for its cover.

If you want to dip further into the world of Wonderbook, you can find more here.