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The Epigraphs That Weren't
Divergent and Poster Girl; Dune and Stalker.
In the earliest draft of Divergent that I have saved to my computer, the very first page is a quote from the book Dune by Frank Herbert. Here is a screenshot:
This is the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, an oft-quoted prayer of sorts, useful for focusing the mind in times of great stress. I’ve made no secret of the impact Dune had on me as a writer. Though imperfect (to say the least), it was one of those reading experiences that expanded my understanding of what books could do, particularly science fiction and fantasy.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that I leaned on one of my favorite quotes about fear when I decided to write about a young woman who was hell bent on facing it. Tris’s initiation doesn’t involve shoving her hand into a box of pain, of course, as it is for Paul Atreides; but she does willingly go into the most difficult parts of her mind, over and over again, and the litany against fear seemed like a nice fit for that.
The epigraph disappeared in later drafts. This isn’t the last time this happened to me. Most recently, it happened with Poster Girl. This is the quote that used to open my draft of Poster Girl:
I haven’t actually seen the movie Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (not sure why I spelled it with a “y” in the screenshot above, sorry about that) and written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who wrote Roadside Picnic, the novel on which the movie is (loosely) based. The basic premise of the movie is this: there’s a “zone” on Earth where the laws of physics don’t apply. In that zone there’s a room that grants the desires of those who enter it. A “stalker” helps to lead people through the “zone” to the room. My husband spent an evening telling me all about this movie, once, in such detail that I feel like I know it. I haven’t watched it because I struggle with old movies and, frankly…it’s very slow. There’s a single shot that’s just the back of a guy’s head as he rides a train, and if I recall correctly from my husband’s retelling, it’s five minutes long.
He did talk to me a lot about this quote, the one I used for my epigraph. My husband loved it when he watched the movie; I love it now, even though I haven’t. The full text is this:
May everything come true. May they believe. And may they laugh at their own passions. For what they call passion is not really the energy of the soul, but merely friction between the soul and the outside world. But, above all, may they believe in themselves and become as helpless as children. For softness is great and strength is worthless. When a man is born, he is soft and pliable. When he dies, he is strong and hard. When a tree grows, it is soft and pliable, but when it is dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Flexibility and softness are the embodiment of life. That which has become hard shall not triumph.
I think it takes tremendous strength to remain pliable as you get older. It’s much easier to decide that it’s too late to change, you’re set in your ways and you’re stuck the way you are, everyone else be damned. What a sad thing, if you think about it— to decide that you’re done growing.
In Poster Girl, near the beginning of this story, there’s this quote: “Sonya’s mind often feels, to her, like clay hardened by the sun, left out too long to take a new shape.” Sonya believes she’s hardened; she believes she’s stuck. Over the course of the novel she begins to soften. That doesn’t mean she becomes mushy and sentimental; it means she starts to believe in change, perhaps not in the world around her, but in herself. That’s why I chose this quote for the epigraph.
In Poster Girl, as in Divergent, once I reached the later drafts of the book, I removed the epigraph. A good epigraph in a final book helps to shape the reader’s mind to prepare them for the story ahead. My epigraphs served that purpose for me as a writer, but by the time I reached later drafts, I no longer needed them, and I didn’t think they would be particularly helpful for readers, either.
Sometimes in writing you need a touchstone—something to remind you what you care about in your writing, what you’re aiming for, what you’d like to return to every time your mind starts to stray. And it’s okay to let those touchstones go, as the story changes and grows and takes its new shape.
P.S. - this is happening TODAY, FYI!