How A Book Can Save Us (No bullet stopping required)
I was talking to a coworker about my excitement in meeting Neil Gaiman and how the book I was having him sign saved me as a teenager when a customer piped up,
“Saved you? What did it stop a bullet”
Not all of my customers are great. I knew the argument I wanted to make would not be appropriate in that setting, so I said nothing.
But it’s still bothering me, so I wanted to tell you an important story:
When I was in High School, I wasn’t the best at maintaining a social life. I had friends at school, but I didn’t really hang out with people unless I was invited out. I’m still working on this trait, but it was very pronounced in High School and this combined with insomnia and health issues led to some very hidden bouts of depression.
When I was 16, I met a girl, Absinthe, who was an aspiring writer, like me. She loaned me a copy of “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman, and something inside me woke up. I delved deeper into my writing, so inspired by this author who wrote about magic worlds just hiding beneath the “real” one. For my birthday, Absinthe gave me “American Gods” and on a trip to New York I bought “Coraline” and, most importantly, “Smoke and Mirrors”.
“Smoke and Mirrors” is a collection of short stories and poetry.
It changed the way I wrote. So many short stories I wrote during that time carry the same themes, or were inspired by a story. For the first time I started writing prose poetry, and I’ve never gone back. It changed the way I talked to people about myself and how I saw the world.
There is an introduction to each story and poem at the start of the book. Reading those introductions exposed me to Neil Gaiman’s personal sense of humor, and showed me that even a talented and amazing storyteller like him could get writer’s block, could be dissatisfied with a work but publish it anyway because it was “done”, could be told by editor after editor after publisher that something wasn’t good enough only to have it be published ten years later and win awards. I learned that his amazing stories and characters came from the same places that mine did. Somewhere inside, and mysterious, and something external and magical. I learned that I could be magic just by how I saw the world.
There were nights throughout High School and College that I couldn’t sleep due to loneliness and self doubt. There were times I stayed awake for days, content with nothing and unable to connect with anything or anyone. And I would read “Smoke and Mirrors” and a story or poem would speak to me and tell me that somewhere at sometime this faraway British writer had felt or thought something similar, because here was a character saying it or feeling it and here was a whole beautiful prose poem about that one thing that was keeping me up. I read the book so many times that the binding came apart. A friend bought me a fresh copy, but in the end, I gave it away. It wasn’t the same book that had made the journey with me, that had sculpted me as a writer, a storyteller and a human being.
That’s the book that saved me. That’s the book I took with me when I met Neil Gaiman.