The Stories Within Us

I had a most illuminating discussion with my daughter at the dinner table last night.

We were talking about reading and stories (as we often do), and Miss B. said to me matter-of-factly: “I have all sorts of stories inside me Mummy, so when I’m alone I can take them out and read them.”

I was intrigued. I asked her to tell me one.

She put down her fork (there go two weeks’ worth of exhortations to “stop talking and eat your dinner”), closed her eyes and murmured “I’m looking through the pile…let me see…Ah! The bottom one.” She opened her eyes, smiled and proceeded to tell the story.

The Eater Metre

Once there was a man who wanted to eat 12 ice creams really quickly, one after the other. Another man next to him said, “Watch out! You’d better hurry up, or the Eater Metre will eat them all!”

So he did.

The End.

There followed a very creative description of the Eater Metre, who is half-robot, half-man, and who eats lots and lots of food very very quickly. (The name refers to the amount – or more accurately, the measurement of food he can consume in just a few seconds.)

The conversation surprised and moved me. I am struck by the ease with which Miss B. both creates and accesses a rich internal universe. There are no constraints on her imagination. And when the lights go out at night, or when she is pottering about in her room, or as she plays quietly in the early morning (emphasis on QUIETLY, on pain of death), she obviously draws on these wonderful imaginings to amuse and entertain her. Sometimes she writes her stories down – at the moment she’s “working on her second book” – but mostly they are secret treasures, designed to keep her heart company and illustrate to her own little self her thoughts and hopes and wonderings about the world. What a gift.

It made me think about the stories we all have within us. Not literal stories like Miss B’s, but the stories of our lives, our longings, our hopes and dreams, our own attempts at working out the world. They’re all in there. Sometimes it’s too painful or frightening to access them directly, so they emerge, sometimes insidiously, in other forms – in the choices we make, the partners we love and hate, the careers we commit ourselves to.

As a writer I have the wonderful opportunity to transpose my internal world onto the page (or computer screen) and share it. This doesn’t mean I tell you the literal story of my life with all its struggles and successes. Christ, you’d be bored to fecking tears. What I mean is, no matter how fictional my work is, it will always contain echoes of my personal universe. In this way I am able not only tell a story, but also to create an outlet for my inner demons (and angels). And all this without harming anyone or getting arrested. Bonus.

Take for example my previous post “A Novel Synopsis”, where I provided a synopsis-in-progress for my novel-in-progress. It wasn’t until I took the time to sit down and craft this that I realised how much of “me” there is in my novel. I didn’t intend it to be that way, but I now realise that my subconscious, crafty wee bastard that it is, has been writing my novel alongside me. (Come to think of it, that’s probably why my pen always seems to go missing.)

The very first sentence I wrote was “This is the story of my Jailbreak from Heaven.” Don’t know why. It just came into my head and suddenly there it was on the screen. (And this is the approach I have taken for much of the journey – turn on my computer, start typing and see where it leads me. I love Sharon O’Brien’s quote: “Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say.”)

My novel is set, partly at least, in an imaginary “Heaven”, and a number of Biblical characters make appearances, some cameo, some more significant. I’ve been having great naughty fun with this. So it’s interesting to wonder – did my upbringing as the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister subconsciously influence my subject matter? Probably. Is it also significant that the central characters are an estranged father and daughter who eventually find connection, and that their story is a distant echo of my own experience? Again, I didn’t set out to create those characters. They seemed to create themselves as I simply kept my fingers moving over the keyboard. Maybe I was standing back and making space for them.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This is why I love writing – if you simply let go and enjoy the ride you never know where it will take you – but inevitably perhaps, you always end up back at your own doorstep.

The stories within us are precious and universal. Those of us who can find some way to express them are blessed indeed. And children are perhaps the most blessed of all, because for them the process holds no fear.

If you have children, I encourage you – just sometimes – to put the library books and the school books aside and simply…make up stories together. Set your imagination free and let it roam where it chooses. See what emerges, and be adventurous enough to wonder why.

And if Miss B.’s teacher is reading this – she left the dinner table last night and read her homework book. Honest.

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