Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Writer Reads A Writer's Speech

I came across the neatest speech while hunting for a quote and just wanted to link it here, since it's the kind of thing any writer should read, but most won't ever know about.

It's a speech given by Connie Willis, a many-times honored science fiction writer, given when she was the 2006 Worldcon Guest of Honor. It is about how she came to love reading, and eventually writing, and the specific books that influenced her and, in many ways, changed her life.

Many of the things she talks about are probably common to most writers, but one thing in particular connected with me, and with where I am in my life at this very moment. Here is a good chunk of what she says:

When I was 12, my mother died suddenly and shatteringly, and my world fell completely apart, and I had nobody to turn to but books.

And they saved my life.

I know what you're thinking, that books provided an escape for me.

And it's certainly true books can offer refuge from worries and despair--

... But it wasn't escape I needed when my mother died.
It was the truth.
And I couldn't get anyone to tell it to me.

Instead, they said things like:

"There's a reason this happened,"
and "You'll get over this,"
and "God never sends us more than we can bear."
Lies, all lies.

I remember an aunt saying sagely, "The good die young," not exactly a motivation to behave yourself.

And more than one person telling me, "It's all part of God's plan," I remember thinking, even at age 12, What kind of moron is God? I could come up with a better plan than this.

And the worst lie of all, "It's for the best."

Everybody lied--relatives, clergymen, friends.

So it was a good thing I'd reached the D's because I had
    James Agee's A Death in the Family
    and Peter Beagle's A Fine and Private Place
    and Peter DeVries' The Blood of the Lamb to tell me the truth.
"Time heals nothing," Peter DeVries said.

And Margery Allingham said, "Mourning is not forgetting. It is an undoing. Every minute has to be untied and something permanent and valuable recovered and assimilated from the past."

When I discovered science fiction a year later, Robert Sheckley said, "Never try to explain to yourselves why some things happen and why other things don't happen. Don't ask and don't imagine that an explanation exists. Get it?"

And Bob Shaw's "The Light of Other Days"
and John Crowley's "Snow"
and Tom Godwin

taught me everything there is to know about death
and memory
and the cold equations.

But there were also hopeful messages in those books.

"There is a land of the living and a land of the dead," Thornton Wilder said, "and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

And Dorothy, in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, said, "Never give up. You never know what's going to happen next."

"If you look for truth," C.S. Lewis wrote, "You may find comfort in the end. If you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair."

I found what I was looking for,
what I needed,
what I wanted,
what I loved
in books
when I couldn't find it anywhere else.

Francie and the public library and books saved my life.

And taught me the most important lesson books have to teach.

"You think your pains and your heartbreaks are unprecedented in the history of the world," James Baldwin says, "but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me where the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who have ever been alive."

Before even reading this speech I have been thinking of this very thing. When my friend died this past month, I heard those sentiments - "There is a reason for this" - and I thought that was baloney. God can make something good come out of this, but there isn't anything in the Bible that says he causes it for some reason. Allowing some 17 year old the free will to choose to do right or wrong and allowed him to pull out a gun and shoot doesn't mean he wanted Jean to die, or intended her to die. It doesn't mean he isn't in control. It just means he allows people to choose what path they will take in life, and because of that, there are consequences. Sometimes terrible ones.

I'm not saying I understand why, but I think that's the point, too. We don't understand. And maybe it doesn't make sense.

At the funeral the priest said not to question why it happened because that could only lead to doubt and despair. I disagree. I think that there probably wasn't one person in that church looking at the caskets of Jim and Jean Smith not wondering why God allowed them to be murdered in their own home in broad daylight. And we were all bound together, many of us strangers to each other, in that feeling. Yet, in the intensity of the moment, we can't put into words what our heart is feeling, and conversation is awkward.

Then I come home and read a book, and there is someone who shares my feelings, who experiences that pain, who deals with similar situations and comes out the other side. I have found someone who lets me cry without trying to make me feel better, and yet who does all the same. There is a character who speaks with the grace I can't, and the wisdom I want. There is communion and catharsis.

I felt very strongly when I wrote my last book that the main character's faith be that kind of strong. On the surface, when facing the death of her child, her church thinks her faith is weak, because she doesn't believe God will heal Ashley. But in reality, her faith is the opposite. God is not at our whim, to do what we think is right. And sometimes, even though we don't understand why, he allows bad things to happen. He doesn't cause them. But he lets them come into our lives. And it's then he begins to work in our hearts.

This is all not really what the speech is about. It's about books, and how important they are, not just to entertain and provide escape but to shape us, to speak to us. And in her words, Connie Willis spoke to me, if only to give voice to those things in my heart I couldn't find the way to say.


  1. All I can say is WOW. Great post.

    Thanks for that!

  2. Beautifully written, Heidi. I think you need to make sure this stays on your blog where others can read it.

  3. Thank you, both. I'm worried when I get reflective and thoughtful that I lose the levity I love about the blog. I'm balancing it out, I guess. And writing what's important to me at the moment. Which sometimes is pellet stoves and used books stores, and sometimes is less frivolous.

  4. I'm going to have to read this twice.

    A lot of kids in my high school died- at least one each year, some bad car accidents, at least one suicide, it was like we were dropping like flies.

    A wise person told me that we can ask WHY all we want and we'll never get an answer. We just don't know why.


  5. Heidi - I know what you mean. In high school one year we had a suicide (on school grounds), one year an accidental inhalent overdose, and one year a drunk driving accident. There were a few others I remember as well, although I'm sure my high school was much larger than yours.

    You know, maybe there isn't a reason why. I mean, the reason is obvious: they drove drunk, someone chose to burglarize with a gun in his hands... bad choices on someone's part. A bad choice someone has to pay for.

    Tomorrow I'm posting something about The Shack, which addresses some of those questions - why God allows it to happen, even if he doesn't cause it.

    Which reminds me - it's yours next. Send me your mail address and I'll get it in the mail to you next week. :)

  6. I agree entirely. I had the exact conversation with my sister-in-law. I think it's a cop out to tell people not to ask why, of course we ask why. I think the point lies in not getting caught up in not getting an answer that we like, or in not getting an answer at all.

  7. Tony - Curiosity is one of God's gifts to us. It's the asking why that leads us to Him. And then we need to have the faith that He really is God, and trust him, even if we don't understand.