The other day I was reading the Prologue to Out of Oz, the fourth and final novel of The Wicked Years. And I found a simple quote that made me smile, and I wondered if the author had fun writing it.
Note: This post assumes a basic knowledge of the wonderful land of Oz. If that means nothing to you, maybe just skip the post.
Setting the scene
In the first book of the series, Dorothy returned to Kansas after a year in Oz. The second and third books were completely concerned with Oz, so this prologue is the first thing we’ve heard of Dorothy since her return.
It’s now six years later. She was glad to be home, but her experiences in Oz were so vivid and so different that she compares everything she sees to things in Oz. That has made it harder getting along with those around her. Yes, she was able to complete school, but her Oz mania is affecting her prospects of marriage with a sensible Kansas farmer.
Uncle Henry and Aunt Em are taking her on a holiday to San Francisco. They want to show her that there are wonders in the real world, so she doesn’t need to invent more wonders. Personally, I’m not sure that’s the best way to prepare someone for a settled Kansas married life - but at least they meant well.
One evening, Aunt Em is sick, so Uncle Henry and Dorothy go out to Chinatown for a meal. It’s very different from anything they’ve ever experienced. Including a first encounter with fortune cookies:
By the red light of the Chinese lantern leering over their table, Uncle Henry worked to decipher his secret message. His book learning had been scant. “Mid pleasure and palaces though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” he read. “John Howard Payne.”
“Pain is right,” said Dorothy. “Meaning no disrespect, Uncle Henry.”
“He has a point, though, Dorothy. Bet it ever so humble, and we have the humble part covered good enough, there’s no place like home. Now you read yours.”
“My mind to me a kingdom is, Such present joys therein I find, That it excels all other bliss, That Earth affords or grows by kind. Sir Edward Dyer.”
“Dire is right,” said Uncle Henry.
It made me smile reading it. It works on multiple levels: Not only is there the pain / dire plays on words, but the quotes also illustrate their differing characters and aspirations. Uncle Henry is a plain, no frills, Kansas farmer. Dorothy is constantly comparing the things she sees around her to the things she saw in Oz - which everyone around her thinks is just her over-active imagination working.
I could be wrong, but it makes me think the writer had fun writing those words. Maybe they smiled while writing it. Maybe they laughed when they suddenly realised “Yes, I can make that work”. Or perhaps that’s just me.
It’s not necessarily good writing. It’s not at all important to the plot. And many readers probably don’t even notice it. But for me, it added fun to the preface.
Why do I like this Preface?
I really enjoyed the Preface. Why?
- They went through Denver and the Rockies, places that I’ve been to and seen.
- The main action is in San Francisco, which I visited last year.
- It considers the actual consequences of a return to Kansas, rather than just uncritically accepting that returning from Oz would be wonderful because Dorothy is home.
- It has asides critical of Christianity.
- It made me laugh.
Like so much that I enjoy, it says something about the quality of the writing, but it also says a lot about me.
I feel a special connection with books set in places I know, or stories that are grappling with experiences or ideas that I’ve grappled with. I like reading about ideas or places that are new to me, too - but they feel different.
Moving past this preface, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m reading the fourth book because I’ve already read and enjoyed the first three. As a child I’d read a few of the original Oz books, and I like seeing well-known stories reconsidered. I’d also enjoyed some of the music from the Wicked musical (maybe one day I’ll be able to watch it…). So it was logical to see what the book was like.
In his original preface, L Frank Baum made it clear that he was trying to move past the grimm morality tales of past eras:
[The] story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.
That worked for me once, perhaps, but it doesn’t now. Maguire’s version may not be a morality tale, but I’d say it has more of the heartaches and nightmares than the wonderment and joy. There are reflections on religion, on sin, on power, on war-mongering and empire, and on the marginalisation of minorities for their own good. And to me they seem necessary reflections.
But there’s also laughter. The books have made me laugh, and they have made me think. And I usually find that a good combination. The laughter may not advance the plot, but it does make the book more worth reading.
A couple more quotes
Here are a couple more quotes from the first novel, casting a new light on scenarios taken directly from the original Wizard of Oz. And they’re quite funny. Well, to me, at least.
Dorothy et al are approaching the castle of Elphaba, the “Wicked Witch of the West”. Son to nanny:
“She’s sent the crows out to blind the guests coming for dinner!”
“She’s BLINDING THE GUESTS COMING FOR DINNER!”
“Well, that’s one way to avoid having to dust, I suppose.”
Then the pair of protagonists, original canon and new, come face to face:
You, Dorothy, Dorothy Gale, the one whose house had the nerve to make a crash landing on my sister!”
“Well, it wasn’t my house, in a legal sense, strictly speaking,” said Dorothy, “and in fact it hardly belonged much to Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, except for maybe a couple of windows and the chimney. I mean the Mechanics and Farmers First State Bank of Wichita holds the mortgage, so they’re the responsible parties. I mean if you need to be in touch with someone. They’re the bank that cares,” she explained.
They don’t necessarily advance the plot (though maybe they do tell you something about the world Maguire imagines and the character of his Dorothy). But I hope the author had fun writing them. I certainly had fun reading them.
Those times my inner writer laughs out loud
There are many things that I laugh out loud at (well, when I’m at home by myself - in public I’m usually more restrained). And perhaps my sense of humour is a little warped, or some of the things I laugh about are inappropriate - but in the safety of my own home that doesn’t matter.
It isn’t just things that I read or watch. It can also be things I think or write. Perhaps it’s an interesting twist on an existing story. Perhaps it’s a new idea, or a better way of expressing (or mocking) an existing idea. Perhaps it’s a crucial plot twist that feels unexpected but so very right and beautiful. Or an unexpected rhyme. It could be a way of making a play on words work, or of turning one play on words into many.
Writing can be tedious, and it can be frustrating, but it can also at moments be incredibly fun. There are times when I’m laughing out loud. Times when I can’t stand up straight for laughing, when I need to slap my knees or the nearest wall - something to occupy my body and express the emotions flooding through me and demanding an outlet. Perhaps I’m at my computer writing, or in the shower, or out alone on a long walk (OK, then I might tone it down a bit).
There can be the feeling of a barrier broken. A feeling of possibility, of rightness The idea works so well that I’m half surprised I even thought of it - and yet it also feels so obvious. Often I can’t wait to share it with someone. Maybe because I want to share the laughter, maybe because I want to be recognised and thought clever. And of course sometimes because I want to know where they will take the idea.
And then perhaps I come back to earth and realise the idea’s actually not that great. Maybe it’ll need a lot more work, or maybe it’s just a dead end. But that doesn’t really matter. I’ve still had that experience, and I probably still have the smile on my face and the after-glow of the euphoria running through my veins. Even if I never share the idea with anyone else, even if I’ll be cringing at the memory within a week, it was still a meaningful experience.
So where does all that laughter end up?
Hopefully regular readers have seen humour in some of my posts (it was meant to be there, anyway…). After all, did I not write the The Australian animal guide to social distancing in that far off time when we were just starting to take Covid really, really seriously, and the world was changing rapidly? (as it turns out, that post is now three years old to the day…).
But the truth is that most of the ideas that make me laugh never actually end up published here. Perhaps I intend to and never quite get to it, or perhaps I’m happy enough having found the idea without having to pursue it.
It’s easy enough to push that great idea for a few paragraphs, or a few lines of verse. Extract the maximum laughter from the situation without having to worry too much about making it work properly. Write or think or say out loud five clever alternatives without having to worry whether they’re internally consistent.
Maybe I put it aside to focus on something else. Write down the idea, intend to pursue it later, and never get back to it. Maybe I share it with family or friends - to make them laugh, or perhaps just to make them groan.
I’m sure with more effort the idea, whatever it is, can be improved. Probably with a lot more effort. Not just effort, but sacrifice too - the lines that made me double over with laughter may be the very lines I have to delete because they no longer work in whatever the idea has become.
And I’m sure this affected Maguire too. Perhaps some of the quotes I’ve quoted are basically unchanged from when he first wrote them down. But I assume most of them have gone through multiple rounds of writing, re-writing, revision, polishing, editing, etc. Moving on from a few fun lines or a wonderful idea to a coherent tale is a lot of work (I may never have done it - but that’s how I know it’s hard…). Those first moments of fun are good, but they’re not everything.
I think this also means that the final text almost necessarily feels different to the author from what it does to the readers. For me, it’s blood, sweat and tears (and the occasional burst of ecstatic laughter) finding the right way to express something. For someone else it’s a five minute read over coffee, perhaps skimming right over my favourite lines without even noticing them (I actually found a key detail I’d completely missed when looking over quotes from Wicked for this post…).
Perhaps the quotes I chose don’t stand out to any of my readers. And perhaps when they read my posts they’ll get very different things from them. Probably some will be satisfied with them, and some won’t be.
Ultimately, though, I assume that there will always be things I get out of my writing that no-one else will. And similarly, if I do something that’s clever or highly amusing to me, others might not find it so. And that’s OK.
The emotions of writing
I feel so many emotions. There’s that burning urge to write, to explore, to discover, to understand better. There’s the frustration that I can’t write what I want to, and that the ideas which seem so clear are also so damn difficult to express. But there can also be feelings of joy, of contentment, and of enlightenment. Specific times I had fun writing. Specific lines I had fun writing.
When I sat down tonight to finish this post (yes, it is the last day of the month…) I didn’t intend to go here. Not even close.
I’ve just revealed that parts of my creative process are things an uninformed stranger might look at, then quietly back away from. I’m feeling naked, and vulnerable, but am also smiling at the unexpected direction this post has taken. It feels a weird post - but it’s also been fun. Temporary fun, perhaps, but not less meaningful for that.
A final quote
Back to the preface of Out of Oz. As I said, Dorothy completed school in Kansas - but it wasn’t easy:
The local schoolchildren who had often before given Dorothy a wide berth now made irrevocable their policy of shunning her. They were unanimous but wordless about it. They were after all Christians.
Perhaps the author enjoyed writing those lines too?
I don’t know for sure. All I know is that if I’d been writing these quotes I’d have enjoyed it. And I’m glad the author made them available for me to appreciate.