Escapism

There are many easier and certainly many, many more likely to be profitable ways of making a living than being a writer. I’m… not quite as stupid as your average bear, and, um, actually very capable at a surprising number of things. I could have chosen another course, any one of fifty, really. In some of them I might even have done well. I look at my peers from academia… and I could be a grumpy old Prof too, at the bludgeoning edge of science.

But here I am, working on yet another novel. The truth is an author is what I always aspired to be, holding (against rational analysis) the idea that really there was no higher target. No-one, as a small boy, that I revered more and regarded with more awe. I seriously thought that it was an impossible goal, a profession requiring too much talent and intelligence for me (which curiously, was not something I felt about Doctors or scientists or pilots or tight-rope walking jugglers.)

As some people idolize sports stars of movie stars (they were nothing to me) — I felt about authors — those I liked anyway. It was honestly quite easy for me to believe I could never achieve that. Easier, when I finally confided the ambition to my English Master in final year at school (I went to a school that had been set up for the sons of officers and gentlemen a century before, had not changed in substantial way, and was like living in real-life version of ‘Stalky and Co.’ It was less fun than the book.). He said: “Freer, you can’t make a living at it, and anyway you can’t spell.”

Because he was dead right on the last half, I assumed the first part was true too. It cost me a lot of years, before I decided to hell with it, I would try anyway. It was quite as hard as I expected it to be. Some of that was that I made it that way.

The question remains: why did a miserable little scrap of a kid fixate on authors being THE profession he aspired to most? And I was a most miserable scrap of humanity – I was not expected to live, and, without my mother’s absolute iron determination, might well not have. Medicine has come on a long way, since, for which I am grateful. But I remember the nights… so exhausted from fighting for breath that all I wanted to do was just stop. And my mother saying “Just ten deep breaths, Davey. Ten breaths. Come now, you can do it.” That was not one night – but many. I don’t know how she coped.

The answer was simple: I escaped. I didn’t HAVE to live with that miserable sick little body – which I hated, staying indoors when other little kids played. Books took me away. Nothing else did. By the time I was eight I had got to the stage where people stopped worrying I would die, and started worrying that maybe I bloody wouldn’t. I did my best to catch up on all the outdoor hooliganism… but I never stopped reading, never stopped being transported from being the littlest kid (years of being sick meant I stayed littlest in most classes) to fighting Kraken or exploring strange worlds or alien artifacts. Yes, I had to come back. It’s never easy being the littlest kid. But I came back with hope and better able to cope. You see, I had somewhere wonderful to escape to.

And the people who made that… were called ‘authors’. They give respite, ease to troubled minds, escape from everything from bullying to despair. They did not build a little hiding place: they gave me whole worlds. They let me recover, and let me come out again — albeit reluctantly sometimes, when I would rather have stayed in Brocéliande or Barsoom — with hope and courage. To take on hell with a fire-bucket. To prove myself, to swim into caves and climb cliffs. To cope with tragedy. To stand when I wanted to run.

People sneer at ‘escapism’. Well, when they can relieve the troubled and distressed of their cares even briefly — then they have room to talk. Until then, I will continue to believe it is a fine and noble thing for anyone to strive to create. And I will do my best to try to provide it. I am not fit to polish the shoes of those demi-gods who I imitate and use as role-models. I’ll never be Pratchett or Zelazny or Heyer or L’Amour… but it’s a goal worth striving for, more so than ones I can reach.

18 comments

  1. IIRC C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien had a conversation about “Escapism”.

    One asked a rhetorical question: “Who is most concerned about escapee?”

    The answer was “Jailers”.

  2. Dave my friend, it is your job to tell the story. Leave the spelling to anal retentive blokes such as myself to sort out.
    And congratulations on the Prometheus award nomination, most well deserved.

  3. If we were all on board ship and there was trouble among the stewards, I can just conceive their chief spokesman looking with disfavor on anyone who stole away from the fierce debates in the saloon or pantry to take a breather on deck. For up there, he would taste the salt, he would see the vastness of the water, he would remember that the ship had a whither and a whence. He would remember things like fog, storms, and ice. What had seemed, in the hot, lighted rooms down below to be merely the scene for a political crisis, would appear once more as a tiny egg-shell moving rapidly through an immense darkness over an element in which man cannot live. It would not necessarily change his convictions about the rights and wrongs of the dispute down below, but it would probably show them in a new light. It could hardly fail to remind him that the stewards were taking for granted hopes more momentous than that of a rise in pay, and the passengers forgetting dangers more serious than that of having to cook and serve their own meals. Stories of the sort I am describing are like that visit to the deck. They cool us.
    C.S. Lewis

    1. I had not read CS Lewis until just this year, and I’ve loved everything I read. I said to my wife I wish I had read him in college but she said I was probably not ready for him then. She’s likely right, but boy, do I appreciate him now!

  4. I was casually good at lots of academic things in school, particularly math, and when it came time I sort of automatically went to the best possible college, assuming I could make a career out of that field, somehow. Hadn’t really thought about what it meant to earn a living, and how that worked.

    It was a blow, freshman fall, when I discovered that, while I was qualified to get into advanced math courses, I was not qualified to do well in them. This sudden dose of reality woke me up. I still had no idea how to earn a living but, by god, I was at a good university and I might as well try and get a good education while I was there (mostly in humanities & dead languages). I appreciated my father’s kind offer of advanced graduate studies (in retrospect he couldn’t’ve afforded it if my older brother hadn’t already flunked out and cut his college career short) but I turned him down (positioned at the end of the baby boom, I would never have gotten tenure — bullet dodged) and pursued a business career which led into programming and then building & running smallish tech companies (my math background wasn’t wrong.)

    All of this preamble is to say I wasn’t headed toward being an author. I was widely read and a big SFF fan (and various forms of escapism), and Tolkien (and his appendices) opened my eyes and cemented my fascination with folklore, mythology, language, archaeology, early lit, etc., so I chased more of that in college. Not until I was approaching retirement did I wander into writing, and started with a novel (To Carry the Horn).

    I never deliberately went into it as a job, expecting to earn a full income, but I’ve maximized my professionalism in it as a business to the degree that I can. I’ve loved great stories all my life — what a thrill to have an opportunity to try and create some myself, But I would never have predicted, as a precocious child, that I could do so.

    Unconscious goals, only visible retrospectively sometimes. Lots of chance and luck involved.

    1. I don’t remember the exact quote, but there’s a part in the book version of The Neverending Story where the Childlike Empress explains that humans who have been to Fantastica are able to see their own world for how it truly is: where others see only the humdrum banalities of everyday life, they see wonder, beauty, and mystery. A trip to Fantastica is essential for someone who wants to live a full life in the real world.

      (Of course, The Neverending Story also discussing the dangers of losing yourself in Fantastica and not coming back, but that’s, as it were, another story that shall be told another time.)

      1. Yes, this is exactly right. The amazing is all around us if only we can open ourselves to it.

      2. I’ve a question I long wanted to ask someone who actually read that book. What, precisely, is the (I think it’s called) G’mork? The idea I got from the movie many years ago was that he was a sort of warg, an evil magical sapient wolf; while someone else who once read the story told me the G’mork was ‘the SS/SA, that sort of thing’.

        1. G’mork was a werewolf of some sort, but the implication was that he wasn’t precisely a creature of Fantastica, nor a creature of the real world. He was an in-between thing that didn’t belong with either, and that made him bitter, hating everyone and resenting the creatures who DID belong in one world or the other. That hatred caused him to side with the Nothing out of spite, figuring that if he couldn’t have a home, no one could.

          I will say that I don’t think this totally makes sense: why WOULDN’T werewolves belong in Fantastica along with other fantasy monsters? But I think Ende wanted a more active villain than the Nothing, and he’d sort of written himself into a corner by making it so that even the evil residents of Fantastica revere the Childlike Empress and will help Atreyu so long as he’s her representative. Thus, the invention of this “half-fantasy” creature.

  5. Is it escapism to read a novel that clarifies your understanding of how human beings interact?
    Is it escapism to read a novel that gives you new insight into worthy goals, how to accomplish them, and what to change in your behavior?
    Is it escapism to read a novel that shows you a world outside and above your daily concerns?

    Then I suppose all fiction readers are escapists.

  6. Thank you for this, Dave. The Black Dog has been edging a little too close, and I needed this reminder. Stories matter, fiction matters, and writing fiction is important, especially for a world that needs Barsoom and heroes and delight and sense-o-wonder.

  7. Thank you so much. Escapism, for me, is a work that gets me to think outside myself and my concerns. It doesn’t require scifi or fantasy, though that is fine – it’s getting to know a group of characters and how they interact. And it is good for the soul.

    1. This may be a very inappropriate question for here, as it doesn’t relate at all to writing, and I apologize, but any of you folks seem much better informed on subjects like this than I am, but here goes:

      A friend of mine has just today, seven hours ago, been threatened with being SWATted by someone they knew online for several years. I do not know how serious the threat is, as I don’t know anything about the person who did it beyond their threatening suicide and being offended that online friends worked to prevent it via a welfare check. Would anyone here have any advice I can forward to them in case it turns out to be serious?

      1. Some bloggers that were threatened with being SWATed contacted their local police and told them what might be happening, and sometimes why or by whom. In one case the person was, indeed, SWATed, and the advanced warning kept things cool. IIRC in that case the perp was tracked down and arrested and convicted, but I could be mis-remembering.

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