I’m not sure if child-me retreated into Story by plan or pure accident. Was it the defense-mechanism of a scared, scarred, socially-awkward kid—an escape into others’ lives, where mysteries were solved and endings were happy?
Or were books laid out like bread crumbs, guiding and sustaining me on the path to Life.
Either way, I simply was not able to stop reading (I was usually told “No reading!” when grounded to my room). I read anything that had the barest scrap of a story—from cereal boxes to shampoo bottles—and never stayed on-task with my classmates, flying ahead through our textbooks, more captivated by the words on the page than whatever was being discussed.
But it wasn’t just words passing before the eyes of a bored and lonely kid. I lived these tales, inhabited them. It was a common occurrence for my parents to physically have to draw me out of a story as though I had drowned under its waves––so strong was the pull of narrative on my heart and mind.
See, I have always easily been able to achieve what many writers call a “willing suspension of disbelief”: meaning I could easily invest in the world of a story (even the poorly-constructed ones); and once invested, it would take a pretty egregious offense by the author to interrupt the enchantment and eject me from the world.
But it’s not all the same: there is a felt-difference between my absorption in the exploits of Cap’n Crunch over a bowl of cereal and the spell I fall under to Captain Ahab.
Tolkien, described this experience in his essay/manifesto “On Fairy-Stories,” saying that there was a difference between a willing suspension of disbelief, which is an act of will by the receiver:
“I will now choose to invest myself in this story,”
and literary belief, where the receiver is overcome—enchanted—by the masterful art of the teller.
In the mythology of Middle Earth, Tolkien’s elves were capable of such “Faërian Drama,” which he described as “A dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp.”
He goes on, discussing the power of these forcible submersions out of our Primary World into the story’s Secondary World: “The potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvelous the events.”
The potion is too strong.
You give it Primary Belief, however marvelous the events.
There may not be a better way to describe why I grew up believing the stories of the Bible, and why they have remained with me long after the potion of their attached religion has worn off.
But that’s for another post.