Do you ever find a word following you around?
I’ve been reading this fabulous, fantastic, inspirational book I picked up at the Tattered Cover: Reflections on the Magic of Writing, a collection of lectures and essays by Diana Wynne Jones. Ms. Wynne Jones is — as I now know she would be stunned but hopefully pleased to hear — one of those authors that I read at a young age (starting with Witch Week) and have happily never been able to escape. She wrote children’s fantasy. . . . Or at least she wrote fantasy. One of the things she talks about quite a lot in the essays in Reflections is the way people perceive children’s literature as being a different, often lesser, form of literature than books written exclusively for adults. Wynne Jones taught me early on that there need be no distinction between children’s books and adult’s books; her books always work on multiple levels, in part, she says, because of
… the spectacle of my husband falling asleep whenever he attempted to read aloud from almost any children’s book available in the late sixties. It seemed to me that he and other adults deserved to have something to interest them if they were prepared to read a bedtime story, and that people of all ages were more likely to be interested in something I myself found vividly interesting.
Wynne Jones talks a great deal about the literature that influenced her as a child, those stories and books she read that stuck with her forever and taught her what it means to be a hero and how to tell a story and what magic is, and she uses numinous multiple times. I feel as though I’ve come across the word recently in conversations as well, but now I can’t quite put my finger on when or where.
Numinous. I was almost afraid to look up what the actual definition is, because just the sense of the word, from context, from the way it sounds in my head and in my mouth, is so rich and fabulous — in the sense of coming from a fable or myth — that if the actual definition was somehow more grounded and mundane I would be so terribly disappointed. Numinous, like luminous, glowing with meaning and matter, magical and dream-like and not entirely effable. Numinosity.
Luckily, that’s pretty much what it means. Imagine my relief. (Even better, there’s a noun — numen, meaning a spirit presiding over a thing or place, plural numina.)
As I prepare to turn off my computer and start working on my own writing, I can’t help thinking numinous, and the half-formed images it sparks off in my head make me think maybe there’s something there, some misty light I can siphon into my own work.
[The idea for a book] has to be a creative mix of interior and exterior notions. The best ideas conflate three or more things, rather in the way dreams do, or the minds of very small children. A very good example is a baroque muddle of my own when, at the age of five, I was evacuated to the Lake District early in the Second World War. I was told I was there because the Germans were about to invade. Almost in the same breath, I was warned not to drink the water from the washbasin because it came from the lake and was full of typhoid germs. I assumed that “germs” was short for “Germans.” Looking warily at the washbasin, I saw it was considerately labeled “Twyford,” clearly warning people against germ warfare. Night after night, I had a half-waking nightmare in which Germans (who had fair, floating hair and were clad in sort of cheescloth Anglo-Saxon tunics) came racing across the surface of the lake to come up through the plug hole of this washbasin and give us all Twyford.
Reflections is on shelves and available for purchase at your local Internet bookseller, and I cannot recommend it enough. If you enjoy fantasy/sci-fi, if you enjoy children’s lit, if you write, if you work with kids, if you’ve ever read Fire and Hemlock and been enchanted but completely confused by it*, get this book.
*I’m still holding out hope that she’s going to explain Hexwood somewhere in here. Goddamn Hexwood.