On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 1: ‘The Little Girl Who Was Afraid’.

 

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall, (2013) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Mariner Books.

I’ve always loved making up stories. We all love them; as highly complex social creatures we have evolved to be curious about the lives of others, and stories help us feel connected. We read about heroes, and wish we were brave. We read about antagonists and recoil at their evil (or unwillingly admire it). We read about cute little animals dressed up in human clothes, and smile at the anthropomorphism, because we relate everything back to ourselves, remind ourselves of our humanity. We crave stories that engage us, that thrill us, perversely, even tales that terrify us. To experience vicariously the lives of others. And we are all storytellers. We enjoy recounting our experiences, our loves, our hates, our political opinions, to others who will listen and who then tell their own stories as a reward. So we can relate. That is in the nature of being the complex, highly developed social animals that we are.

And then there are the stories we tell ourselves too. We tell them in the silent noise of our memories, in vivid daydreams, and the too-real depths of nightmare sleep. Those stories are often as unreal as any fictions; although the events recalled may be accurate, the perceptions are often misremembered (memory is notoriously unreliable); or they become tangled and twisted and end up becoming our own horror stories, worse than any writer could create. Because in our over-developed, modern brains, these tangled twisted misrememberings are real.

As mentioned before, I’ve grown up as a people-pleasing, body-loathing, anxious person, which has led to several bouts of deep depression. The stories I’ve told myself – I’m rubbish at everything, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m unlovable – have developed over many years into patterns. Into fictions I’ve learned to believe.

 

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. She was adored by her parents, who used to told her how perfect she was, how much they had longed and longed for her, so much, that when she came along, she was more precious than all the jewels in the world. She was cared for and cossetted, wrapped up in soft cotton, especially by her mother, who believed that the world was a Bad Place for her little girl to go out into.

‘You might be taken away if you leave the safety of our home,’ the mother would say. ‘There are Bad People out there who would do anything to hurt a precious creature such as yourself.’ And she would look out of the window at the Big Bad World, and the Bad People who lived in it, with terror in her eyes, and the little girl would look too, and she began to feel afraid.

 

Who really knows where our anxieties stem from? Through a lot of counselling – this time, and others – I’ve come to learn the origins of my own. I was a cossetted only child, I was, without sounding ungrateful, loved too much. So much that I always felt I had to prove how much I loved back. Of course that didn’t go through my young mind – not exactly like that – but pleasing my parents, respecting my parents and those older than me, members of my family who would protect me, was all I knew. If I did anything to rock that particular boat, then I would suffer, and everyone I loved would be hurt. And so the storyline began: I can’t be on my own. If I’m on my own, Bad Things will happen. And the people I love will suffer.

And then my mother went out to work. Or tried to.

 

The little girl doesn’t understand what’s happening. Her mother is dressing herself up; she looks different somehow, although the little girl can’t really say why. It’s quite early in the morning too, and yet they’re getting ready to go out. When the little girl asks why, the mother says, ‘Mummy has a new job. So you’re going to meet a new lady who’ll look after you.’

            The little girl doesn’t like the sound of that. She knows that having ‘a job’ means leaving the house to go somewhere to ‘work’. She knows this because her father goes out to work and brings home money to live on, and to buy her new dollies. But although she feels scared, she doesn’t believe her mother with leave her, and so she allows her mother to get her dressed, and follows her like a lamb to the slaughter (although this is a term she has never heard, but I’m saying it here now, because that’s what she was).

 

I was about three years old, pre-school anyway, and this was the very first time my mother had ever left me with anyone else. Including, at that stage, my father, because our activities at weekend were always family events. So being faced with Something New was scary. But even as we walked away from our house, round the corner into another street, I didn’t believe anything would really change. That’s the thing about children – even in the worst scenarios, they trust.

 

The little girl looks toward the house they’ve arrived at. It’s a house much like the one she lives in, a terraced house, but it looks looming and forbidding, somehow tumbledown and threatening, like one of the scary castles she’s learned about in fairy tales. She clings to her mother’s hand more tightly, and looks up at her. Her mother looks down at her and smiles. She drags her feet as they walk to the front door. It’s black, like the sealed entrance to a cave, and the little girl doesn’t want to go in, in case there are monsters. She feels tears threatening; her throat closes up. She clings tighter still to her mother, who has knocked on the door. A witch opens it. She is dressed in a wrap-over housecoat that looks tatty and stained. Her hair is hidden under a scarf tied like a turban, but the strands that escape it are grey and flimsy. She wears no makeup on her coarse features, and she is smoking a cigarette, which she holds between two yellow-stained fingers. When she smiles, it’s like the opening of a grave. The little girl’s mother doesn’t seem worried though. Instead she smiles and tells the little girl the witch’s name, and that she’s going to stay with her while Mummy goes to work. The little girl doesn’t take it in, doesn’t understand. All she understands, with rush of utter terror, is that her mother is going to leave her with The Witch. With a Bad Person.

            She opens her mouth and begins to scream.

 

In the end, my mother did leave me with the woman, who of course, wasn’t a witch at all, but a reliable adult who never intended me any harm at all. But I screamed all morning, and all the next day too. I screamed and cried so much that my poor mother had to leave her job and stay at home with me again. She didn’t get her next job until I was at school, and then it was part-time; she was always home when I was. Now I understand the sacrifice she made then. Now I understand the need she had to be something other than a mother – it was never good enough for her. But of course that little girl I was then didn’t understand. And so a terrible fear of abandonment was added to the list of narratives I was beginning to tell myself.

I’ve always loved making up stories…

Who is the ‘I’ Who Writes?

‘The house of fiction does not readily admit the self… Your relationship with it, as its creator, is tenuous, complex, subtle, utterly demanding. You are in it; you are absolutely stripped bare in front of it, exposed; yet somehow you are supposed to make sure that, at the end of the day when the lights are dimmed, the fire’s blazing and everyone’s sitting comfortable, it isn’t you they see.’ (Sue Roe. ‘Shelving the Self’. 1994. p51) *

Sue Roe here is talking about her experiences of novel-writing, how a writer immerses her self (as opposed to herself – so I shall treat myself here as my Self.) in the writing process as a piece of work evolves. And yet, as she says, the author must take care not to be visible in the finished fictional narrative, for any number of reasons, both good and not so good. Is this true, and if so, can we really avoid exposing our Selves?

I’ve been thinking about this. A lot. Especially recently, during this latest, long bout of depression, when writing anything at all has been ‘about’ my Self. About my life, and how I feel consumed by it, but am unable to express it in the way I (used to) know how to. Through the written word. Because I think about how exposing the written word is. How we are laid bare, even flayed by our own words. Once they are written, will we not be judged by them? And found wanting? And that’s scary.

Anyone who writes, especially those writers who allow people to read their work, in whatever way, will probably recognize this sense of exposure. This feeling of ‘What if they think this is me I’m putting out there?’ and ‘What if they judge me by what I write?’ As a senior lecturer in creative writing, I’ve found that this is very common in student writers, who are often self-conscious about what they ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ write about. It’s my job to try to reassure them that there aren’t ‘can’s and ‘can’t’s; there are only possibilities and their job is to convert those possibilities into the best writing they are capable of. But I sympathize with them, have been in that position myself, as a previous student of creative writing. Students often think they should be writing for the lecturer, especially for assessments: If they write something a lecturer likes, is interested in, it might get them better grades.

When I was a level 3 student on course for the first class honours degree in creative writing I was later to achieve, I had a conversation with a friend who was in level 2. He knew that I was getting good grades, and he asked: ‘Do you write assessments knowing what the lecturers like to read? Do you write to please them? Is that what I should do?’ I actually found the question quite insulting, although he didn’t mean it that way. But in some ways, it was as though he was questioning my writing integrity. My answer was the same then as it is now, and I stand unflinchingly by it: ‘I would never write to please anyone but myself, if it compromised my writing.’ And I say this to students: it doesn’t matter what I like. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like (insert pet hate here) – it’s what you like that matters. Write what you’re interested in. If you don’t, it will show, and why would I be interested in an piece of work you don’t really care about?’

Of course, writing what interests you brings back the idea of self-exposure, of showing everyone who reads what goes on inside your head. Of being ‘absolutely stripped bare’. Students often worry about writing about controversial subjects; and I guess in these troubled times, they’re wise to be wary, but…. I worry about that. Quite a lot. For example, I teach writing horror fiction (a subject often sneered at by Literary Writers, but which is its own way of writing about the (sometimes) otherwise inexpressible) , and for one of my sessions, I sometimes teach extreme horror (Splatterpunk), in which I invite students to be as explicit, uninhibited and gross as possible. And even then – even with that permission – some students still worry. Again, it’s wise to be wary. It takes a lot of reassurance that I won’t judge them. That I’m not there to be a moral barometer. The only judgements I make is on their writing, the quality of their writing, and are they saying what they want to say in the best way to say it. But what they say is up to them. And that we have to get used to exposure if we want to communicate. Once they accept this permission, students often find that their writing becomes liberating, rather than constraining. Watching this happen is, I feel, one of the best things about what I do. It’s one of the few reasons that keeps me in the job when everything else in Higher Education is becoming consumed by… consumerism.

Still – who is this Self that writes? And are we always the subject of our own work, even though it’s disguised as fiction, or poetry, or drama? My personal opinion is that we almost always write about what goes on inside us. We write about what we care about, and this reflects our Self, to a greater or lesser extent. Again, as a sometime writer of dark fantasy and horror, I write about what scares me, and what I think is relevant to my (inner and outer) world. As a one-time poet, my poetry often seemed to want to talk about women’s issues – fertility, abortion, maternity, although it has dealt with themes of horror too – death, dying, and, especially, the futility of our existence – but in very different ways.

If we look at the work of some other writers, we can see recurring themes running through their work. Stephen King, for example, in his book about writing On Writing (2002), talks a lot about how his childhood, and living in a small town, influenced his writing, and when we look at his work, we can see it. Childhood – its horrors as well as its innocence – is constantly explored. The settings are almost invariably the small town, or enclosed spaces, exploring the claustrophobia that such places evoke. And his characters are often writers who are troubled. Possibly the best example of all of this (for me, at least) is The Shining (1977), in which we get the motifs of The Child, The Writer, and The Place, all in one truly frightening book. Likewise with his vampire novel Salem’s Lot (1976), which mostly deals with The Writer and The Small Town. It (1986) deals with The Child(ren) and the Small Town.

But the writing persona we employ when we’re writing is just one of the many masks we wear and we wear different personas for different kinds of writing. We are complex organisms,  and the idea of the single self, the unified self, is no longer accepted. We are fractured beings with many facets reflecting those fractures  – writing is one facet of who we are. And yet, it’s everything too. For me, recently, it’s been everything and nothing. Part of why I want to write this blog is to explore that.

Of course, as mentioned above, we are sometimes judged by what we write. People often assume that what we write is who we are. They assume that people who write horror or about psychopathic killers must be that way inclined themselves. They assume that people who write comedy are constantly laughing and funny. We know both are far from the truth, and yet the myths linger, as myths do, albeit they evolve.

I remember doing a reading of a very dark piece in which a cheating male character gets stabbed and killed by his psychotic girlfriend. One of the audience, who I thought knew me, came up to me afterwards and said: ‘But I thought you were such a nice person…’ I said, and still say, to that kind of comment – ‘My writing reflects my interests, maybe sometimes my issues, but if I was that person, or the characters I’ve produced, I’d have been a long time in prison, or a secure wing, by now.’ I am NOT my characters. But I do facilitate them.

On our course, we encourage self-reflexivity, something that every writer, in my opinion, needs to develop. Every student writes a contextual study along with their creative pieces that explores their aims and intentions for the piece they’ve written, how they’ve created it, and – because we must never forget where our writing comes from – what precursors they have researched. And – importantly – does their work succeed or not? Writing these studies gives insight to their writing Selves – we’ve found them very valuable, and students usually do too. I’m not saying that every writer should do this. Of course not. But I believe that good (value judgement, but hey!) writers are truly aware – as far as it’s possible to be, because there’s always a hidden something you can’t explain to yourself or anyone else – of who they are when they write and what goes on inside them that produces what it produces.

This is, in part, what this blog hopes to do.

 

Works cited.

Roe, S. ‘Shelving the Self’ in S. Roe et al, The Semi-Transparent Envelope (London and New York: Routledge: Marian Boyars, 1994, 47 – 92)