Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Yesterday, my novel came to life. Not on the page. In the world. In a small way. I recently finished a new revision of my novel, Self Storage. In part of it, a girl is taken to Riverside Community Hospital. Yesterday, we were at that same hospital for my husband's surgery. The girl in the novel's name is Nori; my husband's surgical nurse was named Nori. Also, the word YES, in capital letters, plays a large role in the novel. The nurse wrote YES in capital letters on his leg and on his foot so the surgeon would know which leg to operate on. Small coincidences, maybe, but they feel significant to me. Every time I look at my husband's leg now, the word YES stares back at me and makes me feel weird and happy, connected to him, connected to my story. It is always amazing for me to see my writing play itself out in the world.

A few years ago, I was writing a story that featured a green-haired character named Lime Boy. There was a knock on the door, and when I opened it, my character—a green-haired teenage guy I had never seen before in my life—was standing there, looking expectant. I was more than a little freaked out. Had I conjured this person into being? Were my other characters going to show up on my front porch unannounced? When Lime Boy's doppelganger told me he was there to pick up my son's friend, my heart finally started to calm down. I found I was slightly disappointed. It would have been amazing to meet my characters in person, to see them in all their three dimensional glory, to hear their voices outside my own head.

One of my favorite books when I was a little girl was a picture book called JUST ONLY JOHN, by Jack Kent. In the book, a four year old boy named John is tired of being himself. After pretending to be various animals, he decides he wants to change himself for real. He goes to Mrs. Walpurgis' shop (she does witchcraft and hemstitching,) and buys a peppermint flavored penny magic spell. She doesn't tell him what kind of magic spell it is, and for a while, John doesn't believe it works at all. Then his mother starts calling him pet names, "Bunny," "My little lamb," and when she does, he turns into whatever animal she has called him. Eventually, he tires of this constant transformation and repeats to himself over and over, "I'm just only John." He soon comes to appreciate just how much he enjoys being himself. I remember how much this book affected me when I was a kid--not only did it remind me to be myself; it also gave me a glimpse into how powerful words can be, how, even without the help of a peppermint flavored penny magic spell, a word has the potential to profoundly change a person, down to their very molecular structure.

I don't believe writers are godlike; I don't believe I have the power to conjure characters into flesh and blood being, to make my stories truly body their way forth in the world. But I know language has power, and I am continually humbled and awed by it. And I love those little moments of coincidence, of synchronicity, when the Word appears to have become flesh.

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