Bravery and Books

In a flash, it’s Feature Month, and today’s my first entry in Topical Blends, where I talk about books (as usual) and how they taught me bravery (not quite as usual). I shall do my best to make this entry as coherent and also enlightening as possible, and I hope that you’ll learn a thing or two about bravery as well from my reading and writing experiences.

1. A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice

I read this book when I was about thirteen years old, I believe. The National Library Board had recommended this as one of the books similar to the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, a book I must have mentioned before as being very memorable and very nice. When I actually got down to reading it, though, I realise it was a bit of a stretch to say the two books were alike. The themes were similar, of course. There was betrayal, friendship, pain. A Density of Souls also had a very big theme of homosexuality.

I learned later that Christopher Rice is famous for being one of the most prominent gay authors, who has written many books about the difficulties suffered by gays in society. I agree that A Density of Souls has a very strong social commentary behind it, but to a thirteen-year-old, this was my first exposure to writing that could so brazenly talk about boys having sex. In fact, this was the first time I had read anything so sexually explicit (I continued to read a few more such books later, all of them purely by accident, of heterosexual sex), with the characters being high school students at that. The story was much darker than just sex, though. It included a mystifying puzzle of people being murdered, before the final revelation of who was responsible for them. It was altogether quite well-written, but I had been perhaps too young to appreciate any of the writing expertise. I had contemplated many times to put the book down, but I persisted to the end. It didn’t change my opinion of the story, but at least I knew the ending, and figured out what the author had been up to.

Lesson: don’t be rattled by something new!

Homosexuality was a new topic, and once I discovered what I was reading, I could easily have put the book down and resolved never to touch anything like it again — or trust book recommendations for that matter. However, I persisted to the end and tried to appreciate the writing for what it sought to attain. New and unknown things can be daunting at first, and there is a strong temptation to run away from them. But think about it, if you run away from new things forever, then they’ll forever be new things. You may be surprised by how easy it can be to understand a previously unknown entity once you set your mind to it.

2. Compositions

I didn’t use to write very well when I was younger. My compositions were never the worst, but they were far from the best. Back when I was fourteen years old, I suffered an egotistical surge. I kept thinking my writing was wonderful. My English teacher was not impressed.

There was a composition where I wrote downright absurd things. I wrote that after hearing bad news, the narrator’s jaw dropped and fell onto the carpet and he needed to pick it up again before going on to talk. I wrote about an old woman who was also an old lady and an “old girl”. There was a free-writing composition whose title was “And Then There Were None” and I quoted a poem from the Agatha Christie book, which had “nigger” peppered all over it. My English teacher called me to see him and explained to me that “nigger” was a rude word. I insisted it was part of the poem.

In any case, every composition I wrote was met with feedback from him. I tried not to repeat the same mistakes, but my enthusiasm for writing was not doused. And it was lucky that at the end of the year, I got into roleplaying on Surreal*Twilight and my writing became considerably considerably better, even without the ego boost that came with it.

Lesson: don’t be afraid of or fazed by criticism!

It’s very likely that in any endeavour, you won’t start out knowing how to do it. However, you’ll gradually learn from your mistakes and find yourself getting better at what you’re doing, sometimes without even knowing how it happened. People will give you feedback in the hopes that you learn. You may not learn immediately from all feedback, but what’s more important is that the feedback cannot dampen your enthusiasm and self-esteem. Skill can be improved with practice, but once you lose passion for what you’re doing, no amount of skill or guidance can bring you back. Be patient and welcome criticism. You won’t be able to run away from it in your life.

3. The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams

Some of the autobiographies I’ve read are truly entertaining. One of them is Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl, who seems to have led an exciting boyhood, and the other is the Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams. The Salmon of Doubt writes of Adams’ views on the world, and none is more prominent than his obstinate atheism. That’s the first adjective anyone will give of Adams, that he is most definitely an atheist (and a lover of Apple products). I’m inspired not only by his strong beliefs in the face of opposition, but also by the fact that he has formed his own reasoned opinions of so many aspects of life.

Lesson: believe in yourself and your dreams!

There is nothing worse than not having an opinion about everything. It is only when one takes a stand does one learn the pros and cons, the ins and outs of different arguments surrounding a topic. It is only when one takes a stand does one have a vested interest to learn more. Every argument has its criticisms and its proponents, and it ultimately boils down to what you believe in. Do not be afraid to hold an opinion and do not be afraid to be proven wrong.

4. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

There are many books that are extremely thick. Among these thick books, there are books that are easy to digest, such as Harry Potter, and books that are much harder to swallow, such as A Tale of Two Cities. The latter are often known as classics. I read my first full-length classic when I was fifteen years old, in the form of Good Wives as well as Little Men by Louisa May Alcott. They were easier than A Tale of Two Cities, but they taught me that length and age of a book are no indicators of its quality.

A Tale of Two Cities is a hard book by any standards. I couldn’t understand much of what it was saying for the first 20 chapters, but I relaxed and let the words wash over me, and when I neared the ending, I understood its full significance, and that it was indeed a smartly planned well-written masterpiece.

Lesson: don’t be afraid of challenges!

Some things in life are known to be hard — taking certain hard modules in university, for instance. Just because it is a challenge is not sufficient reason to avoid it though. You learn the most lessons, and also the most essential lessons, in the most challenging task. The sense of fulfilment that you get at its completion can be addictive.

5. Incomplete Stories

I have very rarely finished a story. Probably only 1% of anything I set out to write reaches completion. I make great plans and skeletons for my tales, and then leave them at that, losing enthusiasm right after I’ve planned everything out. And yet I never lose hope that someday, I’ll have a finished work ready to show the world. Every start I make is a thrilled one, an ambitious confidence that this one will be the one that I’ll see through to the end. Most times circumstances stop me from finishing, such as time constraints or a lack of inspiration, but at least I had given it a fighting chance.

Lesson: accept, even embrace, failure!

Not everything is made for success, and sometimes success isn’t even the point. The process is all that matters, and if you’re too wrapped up in the result, you may lose the journey along the way. Bravery is in understanding and accepting the possibility of failure but going ahead with it anyway.

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