[Spoilers the size of fairy tales]
“Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going.”
“Trusts ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”
For my birthday this year, I wanted a copy of Instructions written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess. In the past, I’ve blogged about Gaiman and Vess’ book, The Blueberry Girl, which I adored, and has become my standard gift for baby showers for girls. The first one I gave away was my treasured hardback. It was a gift well given, although I still miss my original copy. (If you want to know more about The Blueberry Girl, you can follow this link to a blogpost by Neil Gaiman that includes a narrated version. It’s lovely.) As Neil Gaiman stated in his blog post, he wrote the poem for his friend Tori Amos at her request for her daughter, one month prior to her birth.
When I first read the book, I think wanted it to be The Blueberry Girl, again. Really, I wanted the same emotional experience that I had the first time I read it. I find this type of comparison is a way to ensure that I’ll never be satisfied with any artist’s next work. I did enjoy my first reading of Instructions, but it was actually the second reading that enchanted me. Now, for me as a writer, I think I prefer Instructions. Or they are both awesome in different ways.
The Blueberry Girl is a prayer, filled with hopes for a child; Instructions is a guidebook on how to actually live a good life, to go on a good journey. Normally, I don’t include dedications in my posts, but I loved these. Both Vess and Gaiman dedicated this book to well-known writers. Based on this, I feel like the book is a “thank you” to all those who go on adventures into their fantasy worlds, risking danger and failure, to return with something amazing for the rest of us. It’s more than just returning with a lovely tale. Most folklore, fantasy stories, and fairy tales are instructive and have good life lessons: on what we should seek and what we should avoid. (In fact, I’d argue this is true of most good stories including religious ones.) As I’ve discussed before, books are such an important agent of socialization. They teach us values and norms—and challenge them.
I think that you can read this book in a couple of different ways: as a writer preparing to create something to be shared and as a person trying to live a good life. Be cautious, but also, trust. Back to the themes I’ve noticed in other works by Gaiman (see my posts here and here), the theme of avoiding greed is woven in. The character enters a house and is instructed: “[w]alk though the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.” On the next page, “However, if any creature tells you that it hungers, feed it. If it tells you that it is dirty, clean it. If it cries to you that it hurts, if you can, ease it’s pain.” In this scene, the cat adventurer picks up a small cat that then travels with it. Yet, later on “when you come back, return the way you came. Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.” You can give help and other times you accept help. Both are important to living a good life.
In terms of the art in this one, my favorite pages include an eagle soaring with the cat adventurer’s arms outstretched, with his cat companion sitting in front of him, looking as if he is enjoying the breeze. I loved the last page: “And then go home. Or make a home. Or rest.” In our efficiency-driven, constantly-streaming, multitasking society, I believe that we need it to be okay to live our lives how we choose. We might be producing something, including art, but sometimes, it’s okay to just be.
I highly recommend getting a cup of tea, or coffee, or whatever you prefer, sitting somewhere cozy with a blanket (mine pictured below), and giving this book a few reads. After that, you might want to check out the narrated version of Instructions that will open on YouTube.