Finding Wonder

When fairy tale char­ac­ters step into the woods, they are beset by tests, yet are stronger by the time they find their way out. At the begin­ning of 2021, I wan­dered in a deep, dark woods because, as Bruno Bet­tel­heim warns in The Uses of Enchant­ment,  it’s where you go after los­ing the frame­work which gives struc­ture to your life. The past year had left me bat­tered and jagged, a feel­ing most of us expe­ri­enced. I also lost the one thing which gave struc­ture to my work: won­der. [Read my ear­li­er essay, “Los­ing Won­der.”]

I had to blun­der through the for­est to find won­der again, alone. There were oth­er trav­el­ers, yet as Fran­cis Spufford points out in The Child That Books Built, “It was the Wild, where rela­tion­ship ceas­es, where con­nec­tion is sus­pend­ed.” I wouldn’t meet “a small girl whose bright hood flick­ered between the trees,” or see the Wart as he crept “past pale-eyed preda­tors and baby drag­ons hiss­ing under stones, to his first sight of Mer­lyn swear­ing at a bucket.”

First, I had to break the spell of CNN with its glar­ing videos and stri­dent news­casts that made me twitchy and fear­ful. Where else could I check in each day? I tripped over Ter­ry Windling’s blog, “Myth and Moor,” which became my wood­land nest. My eyes rest­ed on vin­tage fairy tale art and pho­tos of stone-root­ed, mossy Dart­moor. I freely roamed the gen­er­ous archives, unaware I’d ven­tured on the right path. Gen­tle dis­cus­sions of fairy tales and folk tra­di­tions, of books and art, of writ­ing and life, silenced the blar­ing world.

A recent blog post quot­ed Kather­ine Rundell’s Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. In that gem of a book, Run­dell men­tions Eva Ibbotson’s mid­dle-grade nov­el Jour­ney to the Riv­er Sea as hav­ing “a kind of won­der that oth­er kinds of fic­tion might be too self-con­scious to allow themselves.”

How did these peo­ple acquire so much won­der? Was there any left for me?

Rundell’s lit­tle book is mag­i­cal­ly packed with out­size wis­dom, at least to this lost soul:

When you read children’s books [as an adult], you are giv­en the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new dis­cov­er­ies came dai­ly and when the world was colos­sal, before your imag­i­na­tion was trimmed and neat­ened, as if it were an option­al extra.

Inside me tight­ness began to unfurl, like a fid­dle­head fern reach­ing toward sunlight.

Next, I stum­bled on a British children’s lit­er­a­ture site geared for teach­ers and stu­dents called Authorfy. Authors and illus­tra­tors con­duct “Mas­ter­class­es,” short videos on top­ics such as “How Much ‘Imag­in­ing’ Do You Leave to the Read­er?” Two-minute videos suit­ed my scat­tered mind. Author read­ings in chip­py accents prompt­ed me to seek the work of Run­dell, Ibbot­son, A.F. Har­rold, and Abi Elphin­stone. Lau­ren Wolk’s Echo Moun­tain smelled like leaf lit­ter and pine nee­dles. The woods became friendlier.

Last, the path led me to a cot­tage. The sign out­side promised online writ­ing cours­es open to every­one. I hes­i­tat­ed, remem­ber­ing Neal Gaiman’s instructions:

A red met­al imp hangs from the green-paint­ed door, as a knock­er,
do not touch it; it will bite your fin­gers.
Walk through the house. Take noth­ing. Eat nothing.

I knocked any­way. The Nov­el­ry web­site,  “the home of hap­py writ­ing,” wel­comed me to the fire­side. Based in the UK (where they have a pen­chant for odd suf­fix­es — “fy,” “ry”) they offer sev­er­al cours­es, but I was cap­ti­vat­ed by the Clas­sic Course with its lantern-lit quote from Tolkien. The course empha­sizes find­ing and devel­op­ing a book-length idea, using clas­sic children’s books. Teach­ings draw upon the works of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowl­ing, J.M. Bar­rie, Lewis Car­roll, Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­son, plus Blake, Ein­stein, Ruskin, Philip Pull­man, Roald Dahl, Jack Zipes and oth­ers, all gath­ered on a gor­geous inter­ac­tive platform.

The Nov­el­ry took me in, fed me tasty, thought­ful lessons I could take at my pace, gave me a place of safe­ty and warmth while I sort­ed myself. I’d been fum­bling with an idea for four years and have six binders bristling with a for­est of notes. Over time, the heart of my project slipped away and the spe­cial set­ting I’d cre­at­ed wavered, then faded.

I’m near­ly out of the woods, I think. Won­der skips just ahead of me, but I am gain­ing on it. I’m grate­ful for the com­pan­ions who helped me along the way, res­cu­ing me from iso­la­tion, renew­ing old con­nec­tions. I can glimpse the sto­ry-world of my own mak­ing just beyond the trees.

It’s much big­ger than I thought.

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