Recently I was talking bedtime stories with a colleague. (Not that kind!). We were comparing the bedtime stories we told our young children. He explained how his daughter would name a famous person – say, Cleopatra – and he would improvise a version of her story. In his case, with a bit of help from Shakespeare.
I then mentioned my own improvised stories to my two sons. Alas, they are too old for crazy, off-the-cuff, pre-dreamtime tales now. (Something wonderful is lost when our capacity for wonder is worn down by experience. I suppose you can’t be credulous forever – except, it seems, when it comes to believing politicians.) But when my two boys were small I created a whole world, night after night, around a made-up character: Helpful Harry.
Harry’s penchant was for always trying to do the right thing. And always getting it disastrously wrong. We had Helpful Harry Cleans Old Mrs Grumper-knickers’ House; Helpful Harry helps the Elves in Lapland (the Christmas edition). Or the time Harry got a job delivering pizzas and rode forth on his scooter – and, boy, was it customised.
Harry’s great enemy was Lord Poshtwit, no doubt projecting my own political prejudices onto impressionable minds in a reprehensible manner. His henchman was Bullyboy Bertie, who had formerly been his enemy until both learned better. Interestingly, when I ask my sons, one a teen, the other heading that way, they remember more of Harry’s exploits than I do.
Stories . . . tales . . . transformations. I believe our minds are hard-wired to be a swirl of constantly evolving stories. Take the hour of your life just vanished. Its narrative structure was shaped by time, certainly, a natural sequencing process. But within that lost hour were what you might call ‘waypoints’. Perhaps they were dramatic, life-changing, visionary moments – what Wordsworth called ‘spots of time’. Of course, most of our ‘waypoints’ are (apparently) insignificant. And the directions you take from those waypoints depend entirely on choice.
Ah, you might think, the above paragraph refers back to that vast corpus of literature on how to be a novelist, not least E.M. Forster. Choice means story. In its simplistic way it also hints at why writing strong, believable fiction is so hard. Formulae are easy to summarise. Flairs of empathy and imagined experience in the reader are less easy to comprehend – let alone evoke.
There is a Russian proverb: He lied like an eyewitness. For me, that propels you into the heart of how stories work. We believe our own unreliable narrative of memories and perception so dearly that we can readily accept other people’s self-tales. We are designed to have empathy and sympathy: both towards our complex selves and the selves of others. Hence, our ability to blend our egos into imagined worlds and lives.
Which brings me back to Helpful Harry. His narratives are in the process of vanishing from my boys’ minds and my own. The same is true of the hourly stories we compose through the process of living. That is the futile wonder of being a writer. And being a vanishing narrative on legs.
As ever, I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts about my thoughts!