When I was eight an aunt gave me the Chronicles of Narnia in a box set. This particular aunt was no favorite of mine, and I kind of resented the gift. What, you gave me baby books? Ooh thank you, I’ll go read them all curled up with my blankie, let’s hope I don’t wet the bed. (Okay fine, I did still have a blankie, and okay, alright, I was a bedwetter.) I read at a sixth-grade level, lady, and here you give me books about talking animals?
(It took me twenty years or so to swallow my pride and just own the fact that I just fucking love books about talking animals. Okay?)
Really, the main disservice to the Chronicles was that my younger sister was a big fan of the cartoon version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and she was an idiot. I could easily judge how much I would enjoy a toy catalogue, a play, a meal or a television show by how much she enjoyed it. I would enjoy it the opposite amount. This did not happen only out of stubbornness.
I did not have high hopes for this situation with the books, but I said thank-you and put them in my closet library anyway, already anticipating the uncomfortable conversation where the aunt asked how I’d liked them and I’d have to try, with all of my eight-year-old Christian-school guile, to lie about it. But these were still books, after all, and I could easily put away a YA novel in one Saturday evening. Eventually I got hungry, and so I read the first one.
Here was a revelation: I didn’t have to hate everything my sister loved. In this case, I could actually take a thing she loved and love it way better than her, because she had only the one cartoon and I had seven whole books, with all of their textual richness and subtlety and secrets. That, right there, was amazing enough.
But also: holy shit, the talking animals. Fuck, Aslan! Bree, the horse! Reepicheep! The epic scale, the cleverness and practicality of the characters! This was the first time I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this life I’d been given, which, at the time, seemed impossibly long.
I wanted to find Narnia.
Please don’t let the story end
I was already writing when I read the Chronicles, and I already loved to read. But this was my first sip of the drug of fantasy. Worlds that didn’t follow quotidian rules. Places where structures were inverted, where kids had agency and held magic’s leash, where animals fought beside them or against them in good-against-evil quests: this was so much better than the stuff we did in our house every day.
I’d never tried fantasy before. My mother was very, very into church, and was hyper-aware of what the other church members might be thinking about us at any given moment. Our little Protestant community was the kind that handed out bible tracts at Halloween and whispered about the alleged satanic allegiances of Disney characters. And fantasy was the devil’s playground, with its wizards (sorcerers!) and dragons (the devil’s sign!) and buxom wenches in need of favors. Reading fantasy novels? You might as well draw a pentagram in the middle of your forehead and start listening to pop radio stations, because the devil already had your soul.
But the Chronicles were safe. My mom had read C. S. Lewis’s other books. They had them in the church library! Usually church approval meant a book would be too goody-goody for me, but this shit was different. It was so good. I wasn’t an idiot; I knew Narnia was a metaphor for something Jesus-y. But I could not have cared less.
This was the first time I cried at a book. These were the first books I read three times—then four times, then so frequently that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader fell apart at the bindings. This was the first time I ached for something impossible. The first time my heart was broken. It hurt my soul that it was not me slipping through a painting into a foreign ocean. It pissed me off that stupid, stupid Susan could blithely dismiss the world as childhood fantasy—I would never betray the truth like that.
I fell for Narnia and for Aslan, but funnily enough their larger metaphor never took. The books didn’t make me a stronger Christian; they made me a stronger writer and reader.
I wanted that world so badly that I started making my own instead.
Every creature understands suffering
I’m not really a believer: not in God, not in the triumph of human spirit, not even, really, in the redemptive nature of art. My philosophy of life (which isn’t really a real thing—it’s a vague and terrifying tapestry half-lost in smoke, so don’t start thinking that I actually know anything about life or living) is pretty bleak.
But I do know that listening to other people’s stories makes me feel less alone. A well-built, gut-rattling short story (“Sea Oak” or “Memory Wall” or “The Warm Fuzzies”) or even one really perfect simile (“The wind passes through Flag Square, soft as a robe’s hem.”) leaves me feeling like I’m sitting next to a best friend, a sister: I understand. I am understood. I love a beautiful story even better than I love a great song, because I can articulate exactly why I love a story, and it fills me up and keeps me going. Songs leave me heartsick and hungry.
I write because I think I kind of have to. It keeps me balanced. I need to feel connected, understood. I need to understand myself. I still want to find that place I was promised when I was eight years old and Aslan hugged Lucy into his mane with one giant paw. And because I don’t believe in the path that C. S. Lewis offered, I’m finding my way there the only way I know.
It’s not as easy as stepping through a wardrobe. I discover my way slowly, piecemeal. Often I don’t realize I’ve found a part of it until months afterward, when I read something I’ve written and I actually get that feeling from something I wrote. And there it is: a map, a way back in.