You remember The Neverending Story?
I forget who recommended it to me. I want to say it was this guy who had casually decided that I needed to be a pothead. I have this vivid memory of walking beside a shelterbelt of elm trees with him and another guy who kept chewing on a grass stem. They were talking about the first guy’s knife collection and how good he was at throwing them, and how easy he found violence. They were both headed off to college that year, I think, and I was back for the summer. We’re walking along the shelterbelt and suddenly he broke off talking about trying to keep his brother out of some fight and said, “You’d make a good pothead, you know that?”
And I, being a smartass, answered that books were my drugs.
I don’t actually remember either of them talking about the book, but when I went looking for my earliest memory of The Neverending Story, this was what was there. It’s probably wrong: the movie came out in 1984, and more than likely, if I hadn’t read the book by college in 1992, my friends from Rapid City would have put it in my hands personally, glaring at me the whole time because it just wasn’t right that I hadn’t read it yet.
At any rate, I contain the story for The Neverending Story. Not word for word, not even plot-point-by-plot-point. Sometimes stories get graven into you, they’re part of you. If every single copy of The Neverending Story suddenly disappeared, I could recreate it. It’d be twisted by my memory, of course, and colored by my experiences and voice. But the story, I could recreate it.
The first half of the book (and the first movie) are taken up with Bastien Balthazar Bux reading a book called The Neverending Story and gradually learning that he has to save the world, Fantasia, from destruction by the Nothing.
What is the Nothing?
Because my memories of reading the book are so hazy (and probably wrong), I’m not really sure whether I ran into the concept of the Nothing first, or felt it.
I started writing (as opposed to making up stories) sometime in my first couple of years of high school. It was either that or drawing mandalas and mazes. I had to do something as I sat at the back of the classroom, homework done, riding through the long, dull parts of the class where the teacher explained everything again…and again…and again. Plus a teacher (a grammarian) dragged me off to writing camp. I enjoyed it, I liked the people there, I got a brief crush on a poet and another one on a novelist with gray hair and cowboy boots who stood a foot shorter than I did.
I came back with an identity: I was a writer.
And, well, I sucked, but I had a purpose. Mostly I wrote poetry. I found it easier. Also, if you stuck your nose up in the air and held to your guns, you could write poetry in lower case, which saved on the number of times I had to type out each page, because that was back in the day where you could more easily get time on a typewriter than on a computer, and because nobody was passing out free whiteout for corrections.
But the reason I was writing–that was the most important part. Why write?
Because it was something to do, that I did better than a lot of people, that could define me at a time when I was flopping around, that I could connect back to my storytelling in childhood. All that.
But also because I was lonely and isolated, and writing took that away.
Books were my drugs.
But writing was also a drug. It made me feel important, or at least not some kind of bland, formless mush whose main personality trait was shyness. It made me feel like this yawning chasm underneath me had a ladder, a way out. I had a purpose. A meaning. More than that, it felt like I was a puzzle piece about to slide off the table, and instead I had been snapped into place. A calling. A function.
An answer to the blackness, and the emptiness, and the loneliness.
The other half of the book is important, too. You have to learn, as a writer, how not to think that the things you make up are just for yourself. You can do whatever you want: but what you should be doing is writing to bring this stuff, stories, the Water of Life, if you will, to other people.
But the Nothing.
If you don’t fight the Nothing, then you’re done.
When you stop fighting the Nothing, then you’re done.
When I don’t write, I have nightmares. Before I started writing in high school, I’d sneak into the bathroom at night and lie on the floor with the lights on.
It seems incredible to me that I’m one of the people that has to fight the Nothing, that black despair, that emptiness. Who, me? We’re screwed.
But in reality, well, we all have jobs, don’t we? We’re all shoring up the world against ruin, in often misguided and short-sighted ways. It’s not like we’re actually alone in our work, no matter what the wolves working for the Nothing try to tell us.
When the despair takes hold, keep working, that’s all. Get better at what you do. And remember that you’re doing it for someone else, to shore them up against despair.
Someone has to fight the Nothing, after all. And if you don’t fight it, you’re the first one it’ll take.