Blue Pill, Red Pill: Which does the writer choose?


Feature image: [ThomasThomas]

Morpheus: “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes…”
…Morpheus: “I imagine that right now, you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Hmm? Tumbling down the rabbit hole?”
Neo: “You could say that.”

I grew up on fairy tales, never knowing they were the sacred stories and folk legends of my people. My grade school teachers trained me in the beauty of a strong, well-made sentence. But, it was my phantom teachers — Hans Christian Anderson, the Grimm Brothers, Scheherezade, Lewis Carroll — who lifted me away from my parents’ living-room into planes of ephemeral light, terrifying midnights, and wisdom that sang like the clear black mountain streams of my childhood.

I read Carroll’s words about his writing a few days ago. Until then, I carried his wonderlands in my heart, as did so many of my generation…”one pill makes you larger, the other makes you small…” A friend had asked me if I remembered the opening to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Carroll is in a drifting boat on a summer day with three little girls who demand stories. I hunted for the book, found it and turned first to the poem, then to the back cover with Carroll’s credo:

“…there came a day, when one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her…I distinctly remember how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-tale, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole without the least idea of what was to happen afterwards.”

Precisely. Marcel Proust bites into a tisane-infused cookie; novelist Joan Didion sees a woman enter a hotel in Lima, Peru; I find a red sequin on a filthy Vegas sidewalk…and we are down the rabbit-hole. As Morpheus tells Neo: “You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” It is no surprise that writers who have traveled in alien and terrifying lands can find themselves sitting in front of a blank page, shaking as they never did in the heart of a jungle midnight.

All writers face the rabbit-hole, whether you are a beginner or a pro. The best teachers offer the map to the opening of the descent. And, the writer, finally exhausted by her/his efforts to avoid the challenge — that is, making enough money to feel safe for six life-times, managing grown childrens’ lives, being the perfect partner, parent, grand-parent, boss, employee, daughter, son, being perfect — that writer, lonely for her/his work, aching to empty what feels like emptiness onto the page, that writer swallows the red pill. Swallows it all the way, because worse than not swallowing it is the pathos of the person who merely licks off the sugar coating, and hopes something will emerge.

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