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April 6, 2015 / CB

Instances of Small Genius

"Ampersand Print Block" by luke siemens, via Flickr

“Ampersand Print Block” by luke siemens, via Flickr

In the wake of Terry Pratchett’s death, I dove into my favorite of his books, The Truth.  It was the only way I knew to honor a man I had admired for so long and at such a distance.  His death touched me deeply, and I wanted to know why.  What was it about the loss of this quirky, unstoppably creative stranger which so affected me?

While I’ve always enjoyed his Discworld novels, I never embraced them with the same passion I applied elsewhere.  Hogwarts, Middle-Earth and the Star Wars universe are each a more daily presence in my life and thoughts, but I can see Pratchett’s influence on me just as clearly.  While those worlds are like vast tapestries, fictions created from whole cloth, Discworld has a more patchwork, piled upon feel.  Pratchett’s stories do not exist within the scope of a grander narrative, rather the created world exists because it is built from small, perfectly crafted vignettes.  Each one is a singular example of his genius, and when you string enough of them together, you get a story, then a novel, then a series.

Take this moment from the end of The Truth as an example.  Things have come crashing down around the heroes, literally.  The shed which housed their printing press and newspaper office has burned down just as William was about to print his most important story yet, one which would exonerate the Patrician of Discworld’s principal city, Ankh-Morpork.  Into this moment of despair comes this exchange:

“We haven’t got enough money for a new press. Our shed has burned down.  We are out of business.  It’s all over.  Do you understand?”

Sacharissa looked down.

“Yes,” she said meekly.  “I just hoped you didn’t.”

“And we were so close. So close.” William pulled out his notebook.  “We could have run with this.  I’ve got nearly the whole thing.  All I can do with it now is give it to Vimes–”

“Where’s the lead?”

William looked across the wreckage.  Boddony was crouching by the smoking press, trying to see under it.

“There’s not a sign of the lead!” he said.

“It’s got to be somewhere,” said Goodmountain.  “In my experience, twenty tons of lead do not just get up and walk away.”

With three words–“Where’s the lead”–the author speaks to both sides of the problem, moving the dialogue (and story) from the philosophical to the practical.  Right before this, Sacharissa and William, the writers of Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper, were trying to work out how to go forward.  As they debate the importance of the printed word, William can’t get over how close he was to cracking the case.  He nearly had the story figured out, and into that space comes a question often directed at me during my brief time as a newspaperman.  I can remember that feeling of being this close to having everything, of having enough to write the story, but knowing it wasn’t complete.  My editor would look at me and ask “where’s the lead?”  The lead, the first paragraph, the most important part of the whole piece.  Without the right detail in the lead, the reader wouldn’t be interested and, thus, wouldn’t see the importance of the story.  That’s what William still needs, that detail to move everything about the conspiracy into the open.  Of course, that’s not all it means either.  Boddony isn’t looking for words; he’s looking for metal.  Specifically, the lead which made up the press’s blocks of movable type.  It is every bit as important as William’s missing information, because without it there can be no printing of any kind.  As the characters search the wreckage, both questions are answered, and the novel races to its conclusion.

That Pratchett can hang so much, arguably the whole book, on a three-word pun is astonishing to me.  More so, is that he executes with such precision over and over and over again.  In every book of his which I’ve read, there are hundreds of moments just as subtle and perfect, small instances of absolute genius.  When such relentless creativity like that passes from this world, we are the poorer for it.

Something else I’ve realized, though, is that Pratchett didn’t have a monopoly on moments like that.  True, he had a lion’s share, but not the whole thing.  I, for one, find myself surrounded by moments of wonderful ingenuity, though they don’t all come from the same place.  I see it in my son, as he finds a new way to lay out his wooden train track.  I see it in my friends in the 501st & Mandalorian Mercs, when they craft fictional characters out of fiberglass and fabric.  I see it in my church‘s worship band who pour themselves out for the sake of our faith.  As Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God, / But only he who sees takes off his shoes; / The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

And that’s why I think I was so sad the day Terry Pratchett died.  Through his writing, I learned how to see those moments crammed with heaven.  His books don’t call the reader to the lofty ideals of heroism, but rather draw each of us down into the brilliance of a single moment.  A perfect word, the right situation, a character which absolutely rings true (even if they’re, say, a talking dog).  These elements trained me to see and to value the creativity in others, and marvel at such genius regardless of its size.  From there, it’s not such a long road to seeing the value in each person, no matter what role they play in my life.  That, in turn, is another step closer to seeing people as Jesus does.

“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
~1 Samuel 16:7


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