What do you do when your heroes die?
I'm asking that sincerely, because as I sit here trying to make sense of the death of Terry Pratchett, I just...I don't know what the hell to do.
As a general rule, I don't get hung up on the deaths of famous people. This isn't because their deaths don't matter, but because, even for those whose work I adored, I always feel an intruder on the grief of those who knew them. This feels different.
I never met him. I never even sent him a letter just to tell him how much he meant to me. I was scared, as I so often am, of shadows, of nothing — writing this, I don't know what I was afraid of. Sitting here now, I can't think of a remotely satisfactory explanation of why I never sent that letter. I only know that now I can't.
Terry Pratchett meant something to me as a writer and as a human being that almost no other author could. I'll be the first to admit I stole from him shamelessly; if you like anything I write, it's probably stolen from either him or Dave Barry, and if you hate what I write, blame it on my own incompetence rather than their influence. Whatever meager talent I possess was gleaned purely through catching the reflection off their greatness.
Those who looked at Discworld and saw only popcorn fantasy had no idea what they were missing. We overuse phrases like genius, and though such a turn certainly applies to him, it fails to capture what he had to share with us. He didn't just make us laugh — although God, did he do that — he made us think and left us richer than when we'd started. His greatest gift of many may have been his ability to wield humor as a sword in myriad ways against the demons of hypocrisy, injustice, and human stupidity, while at the same time never once losing grip on his faith in humanity. He knew how to make us see ourselves for the beautiful, stupid creatures we are. As Neil Gaiman wrote recently, he took his anger at the world, at all its unfairness and misery, and turned it into something beautiful. He didn't make the evils of the world vanish — no one can do that, after all — but he showed us that those evils didn't have to define us. Terry Pratchett, more than any author I've ever seen, was the better angel of our nature.
So all I'm left to do, sitting here and trying to make sense of the fact that one of the greatest writers of this or any century was taken from us far, far too soon, is to remind myself that as he once wrote, words in the heart can not be taken.