Friday, May 10, 2013


I am an exile, a sojourner, a citizen of some other place
All I've seen is just a glimmer in a shadowy mirror, 
But I know one day I'll see face-to-face

Tolstoy supposedly said that there are only two stories: a (hu)man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. On thinking about this, I realized those are actually different sides of the same story: a man on a journey will eventually be a stranger coming to some town, and of course the stranger who comes to town has been on a journey.

A writing teacher recently told me that fiction writers often seem to realize, at some point, that everything they've ever written is actually about the same thing. Partly as a result of that, I realized that all of my fiction--at least, everything that has made enough of an impression that I can call anything about it to mind--is either about exile or community. Which, of course, are different sides of the same thing: without a community there is nothing to be exiled from.

Thinking back, my stories are filled with acts of communion. Some are obvious, like the group of teenagers making up a mystical ritual in the woods under a full moon. Some are less obvious, like the kid who talks to a priest then goes home and fixes himself a snack of pop-tart and grape juice (a bit of symbolism I'm still not sure I intended), or the little girl who makes friends with her older sister's boyfriend by offering him one of her blocks.

An unwise person might ask me why this is, to which I would respond, how long have you got, because now I have to tell you about my entire life.

One of my earliest memories of community is of the homeschooled choir I attended (yes, that's a thing). It was sort of like spending a morning in public school, once a week, except there were a lot more adults around. When I joined my social skills weren't the best AND the kids there largely already knew each other--a recipe for social outcasthood. Not being part of a huge group has never bothered me, though. I made a few friends, and we stuck together, and we got to have all the romance of being outcasts with none of the angst.

Later, I was part of a homeschool group that also mostly went to the same church. There were maybe a dozen of us who were pretty close, by necessity as much as by choice. Later, that community shattered in different ways for different reasons.

Which happens. I have been blessed to be part of many wonderful, unique, bizarre, close communities. But the tragedy of communities is that they change. They die.

One of the deepest philosophical truths in all of Christianity is very, very simple: Things are not right. Entropy happens; the center cannot hold; a blood-dimmed tide is loosed upon the world. I am not the man I want to be; who will save me from this body of death?

There is death all around us: people die, plants die, stars die. Communities die too. But even when a community dies, some piece of it lives inside the people who were once members of it. We are all exiles; we all have some memory of a home we've lost, even if that memory is of something that never was, but should have been.

There's a reason the phoenix is my favorite animal, and it's the same reason I always write about community. This is the only thing I find to be worth writing about, at least to be worth telling stories about. Resurrection. Wonder. Those things that are unnatural and yet strike a deep chord in almost everyone.

The other day I discovered something I barely remember scribbling down in a notebook. I need to look through my notebooks more often; I've written nearly a million words of fiction but I suspect this is all I was trying to say:

Loving people is like having an extension of your body. And when that part hurts, your whole body hurts. And there's nothing you can do. So why do we love? Because it's worth it--our bodies are broken. They're not enough.


Nat said...

Well-written, Ethan.

Similarly, I recall the realization that every story I've written in adulthood (and at least some of my childhood stories) was about identity - about a character asking the question, "What am I?".

Ethan said...

Thanks, Nat. That's interesting, because I find questions of identity tend to pop up in SF more than fantasy, and fantasy tends to focus more on community (the group on a quest, etc.). And I feel like you tend to be more SF and I tend to be more fantasyish. Not exclusively, by any means, for either of those distinctions.