How Terry Pratchett Taught Me To Be
I was 13 the first time I picked up a Terry Pratchett novel.
I still remember the smell of the library and the weight of the book in my hand. The spine was cracked; the cover was creased and torn from the careless handling of middle school children.
I also remember the listlessness with which I checked it out. I’d finished reading all of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels and wanted something light and silly that made me laugh. I didn’t really want to read anything by this Pratchett fellow; he was just my rebound author.
Guards, Guards had something on the cover that said it was funny and I couldn’t find anything that looked more interesting so I went with it.
It turned out to be one of the most important decisions of my life.
I grew up in what we can generously refer to as a neglectful environment. My father had taken himself off to parts unknown and my mother was deeply uninterested in her eldest (and most difficult) child; I didn’t have an involved parent.
I read Guards, Guards at a time when the sharp black and white morality that defines childhood didn’t make sense anymore and I desperately needed someone to help me understand the world.
Terry Pratchett, through his books, became that someone. I didn’t realize it at the time, but while I was reading about the City Watch fighting dragons, I was also learning.
I met Lady Sybil Ramkin and learned that a woman doesn’t have to be skinny and conventionally pretty to be a complete badass and that fitting in isn’t the same thing as being happy. Sometimes happiness comes from doing things that make you stand out, even if other people roll their eyes at you.
I watched Sam Vimes struggle with alcoholism and learned that fighting addiction isn’t as simple as just deciding not to drink anymore. I felt compassion for Vimes. I was eventually able to turn that into compassion for my own alcoholic father.
I met Carrot and learned that nobility doesn’t come from a crown and that black-and-white morality still had a place in the adult world.
I kept reading. I kept learning. I met Angua and saw how she was both disabled (Hey. Turning into a wolf once a month isn’t exactly a picnic) and formidable. When my own disability manifested this helped me remember I still had value.
I met the Witches and learned that doing what’s best doesn’t always make you friends, that liking yourself is more important that being liked (even if being disliked really hurts) and that there’s always room for a dick joke.
I met Death and I learned about empathy and about rage. I learned about making hard choices, when to stand your ground and when to back down. (I learned what “anthropomorphic personification” meant, which got me points in English class.)
I met a bunch of wizards and one Wizzard; the wizards taught me that teamwork can solve problems even when no one knows what the hell they’re doing. The Wizzard taught me that when things are hard and scary you keep moving forward.
Terry Pratchett wrote books that taught an awkward, lonely adolescent how complicated and simple humanity really is. Concepts of good and evil were replaced with the knowledge that, while evil really does exist, it’s not nearly as common as people doing their best and mucking it up.
I learned about mob mentalities, journalistic ethics, racism, and war. I learned about sexism. I learned about slavery. I learned about economics and capitalism.
I learned the dangers of fanaticism. I learned to question religion, which got me into quite a bit of trouble in Sunday School, let me tell you.
I learned that “just” wasn’t the same thing as “fair” and that the greatest sin, the sin all other sins grow out of, is treating people like things.
He taught me how to be a woman by giving me role models like Sybil Vimes and Granny Weatherwax. He gave me Magrat and I learned that you could like romance and jewelry and pretty things and still be clever and capable. He gave me Agnes Nitt and I learned that fat didn’t reduce a person’s worth. He gave me Rosie Palm and I learned that sex workers are worthy of respect.
Terry Pratchett wrote books that became my de facto parents. Without ever knowing it, he gave me the tools to grow into a person that I like being. He taught me how to think critically instead of accepting whatever I was told (another thing that got me into trouble at church). He honed my sense of humor and shaped the way I write.
And those weren’t the only gifts he gave me. 15 years after I picked up that battered copy of Guards, Guards I attended my very first convention: 2009’s North American Discworld Convention. I sat in a room with hundreds of other people and listened to him describing the protagonist of his next book, Unseen Academicals. Glenda was a cook, he explained, who read trashy romance novels in her spare time but hid them in her armchair so no one would see them. She had an extensive vocabulary that she didn’t use because she’d only ever seen the words written; she was afraid she’d pronounce them wrong and be laughed at. She didn’t take risks. She stayed safe.
He could have been describing me.
Then he went on to explain that he’d been inspired by the women he’d met; stay at home moms without an education who thought that was all they could ever be. He talked about how he’d seen those women grow and prosper, building successful careers, becoming more simply because they were brave enough to reach for it.
When I walked into that room I was a stay at home mom with no education and I truly believed that was all I’d ever be. When I walked out of that room, I had my life back.
Through his work he became a parent to a lonely 13 year old and mentor to a defeated 28 year old. For 23 years he has been my friend.
I am devastated that he is gone.
Terry Pratchett gave me myself, and he never even knew he did it.