This post first appeared in slightly different form here on 13 March 2012 under the title "Stories to tell."
A psychologist I used to know told me that making stories is a defense mechanism, a game our psyches play to help us make sense of trauma. A story is a box to put things in, a safe place to keep things until we unpack them carefully in front of our loved ones and let them be amused or thrilled.
Then they go back into the box and get put away for a time.
I have a lot of those boxes stored away, my own and some I’m holding for others. The only difference being that I view them all as spare parts boxes, to be opened and plundered as the need presents.
For writers, all boxes are spare parts boxes. We riffle through them for the bits and pieces from which we invent new stories or retell old ones. Thus, we allow our stories out into the breathing world, as Frankenstein's monsters, with bits of this and bits of that, and an aspect which -- if we are good enough -- will inspire our readers to the churchyard to dig up their boxes, to check that everything is still there. And to ponder how the writer knew these things, these secrets we never tell anyone, and to ponder anew a world where stories live in the open air even when we are certain they are nailed into a crate and buried as deep as ever we could dig.
The best stories, of course, are usually made from the parts of our lives that we actively tried to avoid. That's just the nature of the thing.
All stories are reflections of one another because they are all part of the same larger picture, the same overarching story that we call our 'culture' or our 'society' but really mean 'our shared story'.
Stories are going on all around us all the time, and though we may fancy ourselves the hero of our own tale, in reality we are bit players in someone else's story. It's the strange and awesome truth that we are not always in the story we think we are. We are not always playing the role we think we are playing. And we are not always fully aware of the endings, the beginnings, or who the heroes and villains around us truly are.
When a story is happening, it's just life.
It's the writer's role to understand that, to recognize it, and to choose the arbitrary points of initiation and conclusion so that the stories we tell reflect the ones that you don't tell. Because when we walk through the world, we're the ones whose eyes are up and looking around, filling their boxes with spare parts.
Ask a writer where they get their ideas and you will get a panoply of answers, most of which are untrue. Because the simple fact is that while appear to be trying to come up with an answer, for the most part we are really trying to imagine how anyone could walk through this world of stories and not trip over at least a few.