Tuesday, 6 April 2010

About Stories

Sometimes us writers forget that stories aren't all made from writing. For example, we had a family staying with us for Easter, two parents and their two young daughters. The girls love written stories, read avidly, and the older one enjoys writing stories of her own. They also enjoy telling stories, and told me many stories of school trips, sleepovers with friends, and amusing family incidents. These last were added to when the family went off together to the local water park one afternoon, while my Paramour and I stayed at home to do domestic jobs. When they came back, I asked if they'd had a good time. The girls were jumping up and down, fizzing with a new story to tell, their words falling over each other:

'We went on the big big flume...'
'And I zoomed down first...'
'And then Mummy went next...'
'And afterwards she took ages to get up...'
'I was watching her and wondering why she was taking so long...'
'And then we saw why, it was because...'

Cue for much hilarity all round. This story was told and re-told all weekend (much to poor Mummy's embarrassment), and will no doubt become part of that family's oral story archive.

Some events are reliable story-makers: social rituals such as weddings and funerals; individual rites of passage; random acts of kindness. Friendships are often based on shared stories. I have a small group of newish writer friends who are bonding around stories involving things like catching the wrong train and putting up a tent indoors - trivialities that wouldn't mean much to others, but which create mirth and solidarity for us.

Looked at one way, people's lives are made of stories, and people turn into stories when they die. However, something I have learned in my writing career is that, while there is of course some overlap between life's stories and written stories, they are often more different than they are similar. I remember, as a novice writer, wailing 'But life isn't really like that,' when helpful tutors gently tried to explain the demands of narrative. I've got a much better handle, now, on how to create a written story that will work for a reader. I know that simply writing stories is not enough; I have to design an experience, create a world.

Which is fine. But I reserve the right to hear, tell, and make stories in my life as well as in my computer. In fact, I think it's essential, for writers as for everyone else.


JJ Beattie said...

I think that's so true. To hear, tell, and make stories in our lives is essential I think to understanding each other.

I've noticed that my children LOVE to hear stories of their babyhood and beyond. A recent (ish) piece of research that I read said that children for whom this is a ritual feel more secure and have a higher sense of self esteem.

Pat said...

Oddly enough whilst trying to retune an old TV this morning I came upon a recorded interview I did with my mother before she left UK aged 90 to emigrate. There was no picture - just our two voices - as if we were there in the room. We had just spent her last week together alone so were both feeling relaxed and transported to the lovely relationship we had before I left home at 16. I asked all kinds of questions about her getting pregnant as a teen-ager, how her parents and my father re-acted etc etc. I'm so glad I did it although at first Mum said ' I don't think we should be talking about that.' I managed to persuade her it was nothing to be ashamed of and I would urge anyone with elderly parents to talk to them about their lives whilst they can.
I've wandered off the point haven't I?

Debs said...

I love hearing stories about my childhood and telling stories to my own children about theirs.

My mother has given all of us endless hours of entertainment as we repeat different things that she's done over the years. We're now collating stories from family/friends for a scrapbook to give to her on her 70th birthday in July.

Karen said...

That's very true, and those kinds of stories are really bonding. Mind you, if I tried to dress up some of our family tales as fiction they'd sound too far-fetched!

HelenMHunt said...

That is so true. And I particularly love the water flume story.

Debi said...

Absolutely - we can all be storytellers. One of the reasons I llove my writers' group is that we meet in each others homes, so it feels like an extension of the old tradition of telling tales around the fireside.

BTW word ver is emyths!

Queenie said...

JJ, that's interesting. I don't remember asking my parents for details of my own childhood, but I do remember asking over and over again for stories of theirs, and being fascinated by the differences between their experiences and mine.

Pat, not at all, I think that's very relevant.

LilyS, exactly!

Debs, what a great idea!

Karen, I know, sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

Helen, it's a good one, isn't it?

Debi, yes, we can - even the word verification elves!

Carol said...

I love hearing peoples stories...I often ask friends how they met their partner, what they did or were like as a child, what kind of clothes they wore as a teenager....it's great!!

My favourite family story (well, one of them anyway) was about my Gran cycling from Glasgow to Plymouth to see my Granpa before he was shipped off to war. Imagine cycling all that way....she had all the brochures of the hostels she stayed at and everything...she always was a feisty woman!!

C x

SpiralSkies said...

Being a born storyteller is one of the best things; even the way that hand-me-down tales become distorted can be a really bonding thing.

Other people's stories are always surprisingly colourful, aren't they?

Miss Footloose said...

Just bumped into your blog, and as a writer, I enjoyed your post. You wrote:

"create a written story that will work for a reader"

which struck me as, well, the work we must do as story tellers with the rough material we find all over the place.

One thing I have noticed about my own memories of events is that I sometimes forget what was "exactly" true rather than what I had to make of it for a particular story to work. I'm corrupting my own memory!

Queenie said...

Carol, I ask nosy questions like that too, being interested in people's stories is a great asset for a qualitative researcher!

Spiral, they are.

Miss Footloose, hello and welcome, nice to 'meet' you, and good point, memory is always a reconstruction even if we don't always like to think of it that way.