Will Travel For Words: Down the Rabbit Hole by Karen A. Chase
Last night I dreamed I was spelunking down a dark, familiar cave…
When I was in my teens, I picked up a book that took me to a place I’d never been before. A reader of crime, historical fiction, and anything Judy Blume, I ventured outside my comfort zone and picked up Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. Poof! Underground oceans, forests of edible giant mushrooms, magical creatures, and wickedly dangerous travel. Heck yeah. Hooked.
It was a magical adventure like Alice in Wonderland but it felt like it could be real. Possible. I not only ventured into other Verne stories, but that tale stuck with me for so long that when I recently began making book trailers for Public Domain books, I created one for Journey to the Center of the Earth first. While making the trailer, I realized I’d never seen the films based upon the book.
So this week my Netflix deliveries included both the 2008 version with Brandon Frasier and the original Journey to the Center of the Earth 1959 film staring a handsome yet somewhat cheesy Pat Boone. While the special effects have drastically improved over 50 years, the underlying themes were the same: exploration, adventure, first discoveries, and plunging ahead in the face of what looks like madness.
In between watching the films, I’ve also been reading a stunning new book that speaks to all the same themes. It’s called Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World’s Great Metropolises: A Memoir of Urban Exploration by Moses Gates. Gates explores hidden places of the world, both below and above ground, few of us ever see or even know exist. In the opening chapter, he scales the exterior of Notre Dame and sees the City of Lights from above the gargoyles. From there he takes us through his treks down secret drains, to the long abandoned City Hall subway stop in New York, up famous bridges, into the sewers of Naples, and overnight into the catacombs of Paris. Gates makes Jules Verne look like both a pioneer and an amateur, and he makes me feel downright pathetic and dull in how safely I have traveled. While friends have told me that I was brave to travel on my own to so many places, bravery I now see is relative.
I went to bed last night suffering from a terrible cold, having just watched the older of the two Jules Verne adaptations. I read some more of Moses Gates’ book, and one cold and sinus sedative later, I passed out and here’s where I had the dream…
I was spelunking through a series of meandering caves. Ropes were tied around my waist and seemed to both support and protect me. I lowered into caverns that looked eerily familiar. The walls were pale and wet. I called out, “Hello?” and I could both hear it in my head and feel my voice saying it. That’s when it occurred to me. These weren’t caves. I was lost in my own head; I was in my own series of thoughts, my synapses, and yes my own sinuses (a result of the head cold, I suppose). I awoke thinking perhaps I have been braver than I thought. How, you may ask?
Just as Gates points out early on in the book, going beyond what we think are normal boundaries, is more than simply ignoring “do not enter” signs. It’s also about breaking down barriers in our own heads. Rules for what we think are “normal” have to be conditioned out of us. By us. By me. That applies to travel, but it also applies to writing, and especially to fiction.
While Moses Gates physically explores the recesses of the world, I travel there daily in my mind. I go back in time. I sail off to foreign and sometimes magical locations. I search historical texts for things not-yet discovered. Writers like Verne create and build worlds, plunging into them daily in what might seem like madness. However, author success stories show me that writing well means not limiting the words out of fear or by comparing it to what others view as “normal.” Was Stephen King’s Carrie normal? Was Harry Potter what publishers wanted when they said normal kids weren’t reading? And, if I choose to begin a sentence with “and,” does it break normal rules, or add emphasis?
At first Gates went a few feet beyond a no entry sign. His ability to venture further came from a confidence grown out of his own successes. So if I can eliminate barriers in my writing, imagine what my words might take on… Imagine what boundaries I might break…
Does this mean I will also charge up the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn and push aside a long-engrained belief in my own flight tendency? Not necessarily. However, Gates and Verne have both shown me that I’m the one who must continually ask, “Karen, is that a rule or a guideline?” I’m the one who has to move my mind and pen beyond those boundaries and say, “Just because it’s not probable, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.”
Karen A. Chase is a regular contributor to Shelf Pleasure, sharing journeys near and far in the pursuit of stories and novels in her monthly feature, Will Travel for Words. She is the author of Bonjour 40: A Paris Travel Log, and is currently working on an historical novel set during the American Revolution. Follow her on twitter: @KarenAChase.
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