Goodbye, Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is my favorite writer. So many things about the way I write were inspired by him, from his classic talk about magic in the “Consensus Fantasy Universe” (an incredibly useful term that has never gotten enough traction in our discourse) to the idea that you can be funny and digressive and serious and focused at the same time.

When I woke up today and read that he had died, I just went back to sleep. It would give me a few more hours of not having to deal with it. Part of it is that I have a cold, and I’m not feeling very sharp. An unsharp mind can’t say the words I wanted to say about Terry. But now I’m awake and there’s no more sleep in me so it’s time to drink a few cups of coffee and put some words down. That’s how you become a writer: by putting words down.

When I was getting started as a writer, I heard the same things everyone hears. Stick to one character viewpoint. Omit everything that doesn’t advance the plot. Old Joe Campbell knows everything there is to know about how to structure a story, so you’d better do it his way or else. Terry broke all these rules, but he never broke the story, or the world. He used the rules when they were useful, but when breaking them would make the story better, he did that too. He obviously knew the old ways and understood why they worked, and that was why he could do the things he does.

Terry knew how to die a writer. To quote Jim Henson: “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.”

And he did.

Terry Pratchett writes his own ending

Brilliant and perfect and beautiful as always. And smart. A brilliant dodge, because you know, if he didn’t write it, a thousand other people would have tried.

Of course, a man who has written so prolifically and compassionately about death has a slew of quotes that are perfect for this situation, like this one from Reaper Man:

In the Ramtops village where they dance the real Morris dance, for example, they believe that no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away — until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.

So I know that, at least by Ramtops reckoning, Terry won’t be ‘finally dead’ for a long, long time. I have a lot of odd beliefs about how the universe works, Terry helped me realize they have more to do with being a writer than with anything else. Nowadays, when people ask me what I believe, I’m more likely than anything else to just point them to this passage from Hogfather.

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.

Hogfather

Our ideas, how we share them, and how we let them guide us… they’re real and important, if we treat them like they’re real. Maybe they’re real in a different way than atoms are real – but they can also build worlds, and change worlds, and keep ripples around even after someone has gone through the doors.

Thank you Terry, for giving me a way to talk about this. I’ll miss your new words. I’ll miss you.

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