Nim’s Island and the Brooklyn Monk
By Antonio Graceffo
“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.”
This quote has been attributed to everyone from St. Augustus to Bruce Lee. I don’t know who actually said it, but it rings with a powerful truth.
At cocktail parties, when people find out that I am a published author, they often say to me, “I also want to be a writer, but I don’t know what to write about.”
In my opinion, they are suffering from a sequence error, putting the cart before the horse. First you start with what you need to say, then you write it. You use writing as a way of communicating those feelings and ideas which you wish to express. But the writing starts with the idea, not the desire to write.
Every writer is different and has a different path. There is, however, one commonality to the history of every writer great or small, who made it or not. Every writer knows the taste of poverty and will eventually wind up teaching a writing class at a community college somewhere, just to survive. The first time I taught one of these classes, a student came to me and said, “Teacher, I want to be a great writer, but I don’t know how to start.”
I told him, “The first step to being a great writer is to go do something worth writing about.”
From childhood, I knew that I would someday be a writer, and that the subject of my writing would be my own life. And so, I lived accordingly. In my youth, I distinctly remember making bad or even destructive choices which I believed had a lower probability of success, but which would be a better story when I sat down to write.
Consequently, I was in three branches of the military and held most of the ranks between private and NCO two or three times.
Later, I made good, but interesting decisions, like quiting my job on Wall Street to go to Asia and live an adventure life.
When I returned to the USA and did a speaking tour, I met a lot of nice, hard working people with careers and families, who basically said to me that if the cost of becoming a writer or speaker was that they had to go on wild adventures, they simply couldn’t do it. They had family obligations and jobs that they couldn’t just walk away from.
I realized at that point that the adventure life could easily be interpreted as very self-centered. So, the next evolution in my adventure writing was to find adventures that would help people, like going into Burma and aiding the Shan rebels who were being subjected to genocide by the Burmese government.
This was in many ways better than what I had done before. The writing was deeper and more interesting. The missions across the border were hopefully brining aid and work attention to a forgotten and suffering people.
But, it still wasn’t something everyone could do. I thought of all of those millions with careers, houses, and families. Were they precluded from being writers? Were their lives disinteresting simply because they had some stability?
When I was in Philippines, working on an ambulance crew, I started revisiting the writing of David Sedaris. He is hilarious. His books always make me laugh out loud in public places, to the point that I felt embarrassed reading them in the waiting room of the Emergency Room, fearing that my laughter would seem irreverent. After a number of angry stares and rude comments from suffering families, I limited my reading to the back of the ambulance. If the patients were unconscious, they really didn’t care what I was reading. Once or twice, the nitrous-oxide wore off, the patient woke up and made some comment in favor of Tom Robbins. But I just shot him up with three ccs of Demerol. Everyone knows David Sedaris is funnier than Tom Robbins.
David Sedaris is a brilliantly funny author who only writes about his own life. Taken objectively, his life isn’t particularly interesting. He has some sisters, a mother and father, and his family moved from Upstates New York to North Carolina. They aren’t circus performers or private-eyes. His dad has a corporate job and his mom is a homemaker.
There is nothing unusual or funny about David Sedaris’s family or his upbringing. He writes about how, as a child, he felt compelled to lick light bulbs, but who didn’t go through this stage? I once got my tongue caught in the keyboard because i wanted to see what my writing tasted like.
For writers, I guess the lesson we could learn from David Sedaris is that life is funny. Life is interesting. Your life is funny and interesting. The skill is in finding the interesting side of the mundanities of life, and writing them in a way that makes people want to write them. Jerry Seinfeld made millions writing “a show about nothing.”
After all of this thinking and re-thinking and light-bulb licking, I realized that while all of these discoveries gave hope to would be writers, not everyone wants to be a writer. So, where is the hope for the normal person, leading a normal life?
While I was in the Philippines, I often skipped meals so that I could go to the movies. I had just come out of Burma, and they don’t have the latest Hollywood releases there. So, the Philippines gave me a chance to catch up on my movie viewing.
Being me, I watch a lot of cartoons and kids movies. A lot of adults do, but I think I am unique in the way I later dissect them, and use the lessons to create a modern religion. I was a Mulan-ite for years following the teachings of Mushu, the tiny dragon. In addition to teaching me that women could do anything men could do, and that a small dragon could be as powerful as a big dragon if he is a complete slacker, Mushu also taught me that large groups of men living together smell like Cheetos. As a writer, I am always look for new ways describe smells, and this Cheeto revelation really helped my career.
One of the kids films that I saw in Philippines which left a lasting impression on me was “Nim’s Island.” The movie is about a little girl named Nim, who lives on a secret island, with her father, who is a naturalist scientist. Up to this point, most of us can’t relate. If my father and I had been alone on island, while I was growing up, I am sure only one of us would have survived. But, the story gets better.
Nim is addicted to reading adventure books about an Indiana-Jones-esque hero named Alex Rover. He has the whip, the hat, the overcoat in the desert heat, all of the pieces of adventure equipment I wish I could have to round out my jungle ensemble. When Nim’s father goes missing at sea, she contacts the author, who is also named Alex Rover, and asks him to come and help her rescue her dad.
This is where the story takes a turn towards reality. Alex Rover, it turns out, is actually Alexandra Rover, a complete recluse, who hasn’t left her home in years. She created Alex Rover, the irreverent adventurer as a kind of alter ego, who could go and do all of the things Alexandra could not.
When Alexandra reads the email from Nim, she is concerned that a young girls is alone on an island, and wants to help, but she is afraid to even go out of her house. The Alex Rover character materializes and argues and cajoles Alexandra into not only leaving the house, but flying by sea plane to the island, in order to save Nim and her dad. When Alex finally arrives, she realizes she lacks any of the diverse skills she would need to help Nim, much less survive in a jungle environment. She turns to Alex and asks, “What do I do now?” Alex laughs and basically says, “I am done. You are on your own now.”
He turns, and walks into the sea, leaving Alexandra to her own fate. He tells her, “You don’t need me anymore. You can do it by yourself.” The last thing he tells her before he disappears beneath the waves is, “Be the hero of your own life story.”
“Be the hero of your own life story.”
This was the line that I took away with me. My life, and this article, began with me writing my life as a story, and now I realized that we are all just writing our life story. That means everyone is an author. You will write, at the very least, one great epic work, which only you can write, YOUR LIFE IS YOUR OPUS MAGNUS!
This week I pissed away a lucrative writing contract when the editor asked me to make too many changes to my manuscript. Yes, I desperately need the money. But I am still not willing to compromise or change what I write. The benefit is that I will have complete freedom. The down side is that I will live in poverty. But as with all decisions in life, you weigh out the consequences of your actions and if you are willing to endure the consequences, then no one can ever tell you what to do. You will have complete freedom.
As an author, you are in complete control of your writing. You chose the hero of your life story. If you will chose yourself, there is nothing in the world that you can’t accomplish. Your life-story will be a fascinating tale, with a happy ending. You can write it, or just keep it inside yourself, giving pieces of it to your children and those you love. Either way, you will have peace of mind. You will know that you have lived well and that you are a great success. And you have been a hero to at least one person. Most likely you will find that by being a hero to yourself first, you will become a hero to many others.
“Be the hero of your own life story.” As the author, you are in complete control. Remind yourself of this each morning when you wake up and begin to write.
Antonio Graceffo is an adventure writer living in Asia. He has four books on amazon.com. His website is speakingadventure.com contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org Antonio is a professional speaker and available for public speaking engagements.