Inspired by Books: Me and The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

(Note: Post is kind of long today. Trying to get back into the writing habit.)

There are times, when writing, that I love my story.

And then there are the times when I forget.

It was a week or two ago when I had one of these feelings. It wasn’t necessarily writer’s block—I knew what I wanted to say, what I wanted to happen next in the narrative, what I had been excited about the week before. But whatever it was, I just wasn’t excited about it now.

The feeling is the equivalent of your favorite food being put down in front of you when you are not hungry, or perhaps when you’re sick and can’t eat a lick. My brain registers, Oh, this is my favorite food, but my body rejects it. The same kind of thing happens to me in writing, in reading… in a lot of areas, actually. These things have cycles. Some days I write voraciously. Some days I read so deeply that I forget that I’m sitting in a chair in my living room. And then, some days, I don’t.

Anyway, I was thinking about my writing, and why I didn’t like it like I should. I made revisions, but they weren’t helping much. I knew it wasn’t so much that I had grown tired of my subject, so much as that I was just tired in general. And I wasn’t very excited about what I was writing. So I asked myself some questions: What books had I been excited about before? What books had resonated with me? And what had made them so?

Thus begins a self-reflection in my relationship with books. Books have had a profound impact not only on me as a writer, but me as a person—as I’m sure any reader can attest to. But I think that it’s important that I, especially now, look back and see what, exactly, has influenced me.

Not sure if this is going to be a proper series of posts or just a one-time thing. Either way, this won’t necessarily be a book review. We all know how those go, for me at least—which is to say, horribly. No, this won’t be a review, but a reflection. More personal in nature, and more random, too.

Plus, I haven’t put anything writing- or reading-related on the blog in a while. It’ll be good to get back to that.

So now the question remains: what has influenced me?

My answer: an ocean the size of a pond.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman came to me at just the right time and place in my life, in the summer of 2013 right before my senior year of high school. Had I read it at any other time I think I still would have loved it—but because of where I was at and what things I held to be true in that time, I was able to understand something I’m not sure I could fully grasp before or after.

As I sat down to first write this post a few days ago, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. I had liked The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It was good. It had left me with a profound, air-light feeling in my stomach after reading it, something only truly great books ever do. But other than those things, I wasn’t sure where to go next. It had, after all, been three years since I’d last read Ocean. I’d forgotten some of the specifics. So over Thanksgiving weekend as I returned home, I scuffled through my stuff, dug up my copy of the book, and reread it.

I was not disappointed.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about an unnamed main character who goes back to the place of his childhood, and begins to remember things he hadn’t before about when he had lived there. Most of the book takes place in this man’s past, when he is seven. A strange turn of events leads him to become friends with Lettie Hempstock and her family, who have a pond in their back yard that Lettie claims is an ocean. It’s also a story of how he and Lettie confront some pretty dark forces that have come to the neighborhood.

There are “superficial” things I like about this book—that is to say, things on the outside I’d probably still like even if my experiences growing up were different (after all, with different experiences, I would probably have related to the book differently.) Neil Gaiman is a master writer. His prose is familiar and magical at the same time. In fact, so are the stories and places he creates. But The Ocean at the End of the Lane holds something specific about me in between its pages—and I think that thing is the memory of childhood. Or, at least, it’s one of them.

I suppose I was a storyteller as a child, but not in the way that I think authors usually are. Many established authors can find books they made as kids, written in crayon with random, brief plotlines. The urge to read and write seemed to strike them early, as if they were born knowing and continued to know it. I didn’t think much of either of these until I was probably fourteen. I suppose I’m not an established author, though, so there’s still time to prove this theory correct.

I never really wrote as a child. But I imagined. I made up characters and worlds. I had imaginary friends. I knew they were not real in the way that I knew that characters in storybooks were not real, but just like those same storybook characters, my own imaginary ones felt more real to me than anything in my life. They had not existed, but that did not negate the possibility that something like them could exist in the future, or in another place.

As a child, everything I discovered was most personally mine. I wasn’t swollen with selfishness, necessarily. But I was the protagonist of my own narrative into which others appeared periodically. Like that Taylor Swift song, my entire world was one block wide but that only made everything bigger. Since my immediate world was so small, and I knew there was more outside of it but not what that outside stuff was, the outside world seemed vast and endless and full of possibilities. In a sense, because the bounds of my inner world were tiny, and because I didn’t know where the outer bounds were, the entire outside world took on a magical quality and became boundless. The conglomerate universe of these worlds was paradoxically small and large at the same time. I’d often look up the street, a place where I’d never gone on my own, and imagine what was past the houses that I’d never seen up close, what lay beyond the trees obscuring the view, how weird it would be to touch the brown paint on a house that seemed very far off.

Now, as an adult, I can pretty much guess what’s beyond the houses even if I haven’t been there: it’s more houses. Furthermore, if I want to know for sure what’s over there, I could walk. Drive if I was lazy. Or look it up on the internet.

But as a child, it was magic to wonder what was beyond. It was an adventure just to go see, if I ever managed to. I didn’t manage to often.

And that’s how it is, isn’t it? As kids we aren’t surprised by the prospect of something more being out there, but we’re still in awe of it. We can believe impossible things, even though we haven’t seen as much as the adults. We aren’t concerned with the bounds. We haven’t seen them, so why can’t they be a million miles away?

This is often what I think about when I think on The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The entire book takes place in this one-block-wide kind of place, and yet the book is its own little world, with the unbounded possibility extending the edges. But more than that, it’s also about how these worlds that used to be real to us can—and probably will—be forgotten.

Like I mentioned before, of all the books I’ve read, my relationship with my childhood is probably best represented through this one. Not to say that my childhood was close to this—but more that the truths that I knew as a child are truths that I find in Ocean. I remember adults not believing me—not necessarily because either of us was incorrect, but more like we were speaking different languages and it was hard for us to translate. I also remember big battles that my parents didn’t (and couldn’t) know about. Not being able to explain to my parents why I wasn’t hungry. Letting very few into the inner circle of my world.

But that summer of 2013 between my junior and senior years I also remember being afraid of losing my world-system.

I was, in a way, growing up. Not in the sense that I was learning to be responsible, as many people would say. As a child I was fairly mature, and I think fairly responsible, or as responsible as a child could be. But at seventeen I was losing the very last remnants of my sense of wonder, of boundlessness. I was aware of the real world in ways I wasn’t before. I knew where the edges were, undeniably now. And they were much closer than I’d anticipated.

That year and the year after, my world was simultaneously crumbling and being built. I was preparing for STEM careers, and preparing for the tests that led to those careers. I was meditating on college. I was ambushed by what I can categorize now as an anxiety disorder, something I’d never experienced in such force when I was young. My home life was abysmal, and at certain points in time, hopeless.

But in that same year I started my first “real” draft of the novel I’ve been working on. My classes were all successes. I was learning compassion, learning to pay better attention to the people around me. I knew with no small certainty that this was the year I’d look back on and see many events that had defined who I was.

But I was gaining things at a slower rate than I was losing them, I felt. I was forgetting something I never wanted to. I had been comfortable in the worlds I’d built before. But the world in my head and the world outside were now melding, and I wasn’t sure I liked it.

When I read Ocean now, it’s a reminder to me of the worlds I’d forgotten. Much as I hate to admit it, I’m more like the man, attending a funeral forgetting about my past. But reading it then, in high school, I was in the midst of the memory, steeped deep in the middle of the ocean where I knew everything. And I was Lettie Hempstock, in a way, trying to protect something that maybe I couldn’t and later trying to see if it was worth it.

I suppose, more than anything, this book is a comfort. It nudges me, reminds me of things I used to know. But it also reminds me that I still know them, deep inside. It has a part of me that I have inadequately tried to describe here. This story is about a child, but the lesson is for adults. What that lesson is, I am still not a hundred percent sure.

Perhaps I will not feel this way about this book years or even weeks from now. Perhaps I am over-exaggerating, still high from reaching the end of this wonderful book again.

But this is accurate, I think. For now, it’s true.

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