A Curious Girl

The musings of a girl who is curious in both senses of the word. Life, God, and York. Oh, did I say York? I meant Bradford!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stories, and why life and stories are different

I've been thinking a lot lately about stories - chiefly how stories are often different from real life. Of course, there are the obvious things - in stories there are things like wizards, unicorns, hobbits, robots that can think for themselves and so on, whereas these things are unlikely to occur in everyday life. And there's that mysterious Dickensian thing where the characters are all mysteriously related (for example, in an entirely unnecessary twist, in Great Expectations it turns out unbeknownst to Pip, he has actually met Estella's real parents. This doesn't help anyone - Estella never finds out who they are - but it does provide a bit of pathos when Estella's real father dies, and Pip is able to tell him that he loves Estella and she is safe).

I've been reading Dear Fatty - Dawn French's memoirs - and also writing a story that is meant to be narrated by an old woman, relating stories from her childhood. So I've rather wondered how memories work, and it has occurred to me that my old woman probably doesn't remember her childhood as clearly as she makes out. I've come up with several theories, therefore, as to how she is constructing her tale - possibly she kept a diary, or perhaps is reconstructing the story using her memories as the bare bones of narrative.

I've taken up playing the ukulele and am trying to write songs. I've got two so far, one which is a love song and one about Rosalind Franklin. And I thought, what better subject for a song, than a story from my own life?

Then I tried to think of a story.

Mark Twain once said, "The truth is stranger than fiction because the truth doesn't have to be consistent." That sounds about right. As I ploughed through my memories looking for something song-worthy, I found that my life simply does not behave itself in a story-like fashion. For instance, I thought of holidays I'd been on (I can still recall our last summer...) - but they weren't really stories, just patchy accounts of places I'd been and people I'd chatted to. All interesting enough in their way, but not enough for a song. Or I thought of friends that I'd known - trying to remember how we met... sometimes I couldn't remember, or it was alarmingly prosaic, something like having a mutual friend at school. There's no story-line to it - just a montage, really, of memories - places, jokes, songs, feeling extremely serious as we sat singing along to Simon and Garfunkel.

Stories have a wonderful way of making sense. One of the things I've noticed in the story I'm writing is how easy it is to tie everything together. Nearly everything has a purpose - it can be foreshadowing, or irony, or metaphor, or pathetic fallacy... Things are appropriate somehow, and even when something in a story is inappropriate, it's usually for a reason. It wouldn't just be irrelevant.

Whereas a lot of life is well, irrelevant. In a story, your character might be going to confront an enemy, and the air is hot and humid, as if before a storm. Both pathetic fallacy and foreshadowing. In real life, you probably wouldn't remember what the weather was like, and chances are it was probably moderate to fair. In a story, your character says, "no, you guys go ahead, I'd like to get some air" and then is attacked by evil monster the moment the party's back is turned. In real life, character gets some air and wanders along later.

It frustrated me, thinking about this, because it made me wonder why we like stories - why are stories written, read and told if they are not really like life at all? I guess in some sense stories are like a thread (a yarn, if you will! :) ) whereas life is more like the cloth or the tapestry. I think of people I've known and places I've been and experiences I've had, and of course they've had the elements of things in stories - after all, stories must be at least a little inspired by life - but the tales haven't ended properly - loose ends not tied up - characters leave without explanation, and a lot of the time, the people who are important in some ways but barely feature. It's embarrassing how many people I feel very grateful to but now am hardly ever in touch with, for no reason better than being busy and not getting around to e-mailing.

On reflection, I've just realised it might be a good thing that I've randomly not quite but nearly lost touch with people. I mean, look at the History Boys - one teacher is the most eccentric and probably the most important to the boys... or look at Pay It Forward - one kid changes the lives of lots of people, some of whom he doesn't know. Or take The Bridge to Terebithia, My Girl, Fried Green Tomatoes, Beaches, Goodnight Mr Tom, or, well, lots of others. In all of these stories, there is a character who is very important, has a role to play in shaping another character's life, and then DIES.

Yes, DIES.

To be fair, this has happened to at least one important person in my life, but our relationship wasn't really film-worthy. There were no life-changing moments, even though it did change my life; nothing that would warrant a weepy with Oscar winning actors and Bette blooming Midler. That person's death did make me really sad - obviously - but there was no real Wind Beneath My Wings moment, thank blooming goodness. His death was not in a delicious twist of irony or in a devastatingly meaningless tragedy, only the sort of sad, horrible thing that happens sometimes. It was, in a sense, meaningless, but not in a melodramatic, end of a movie sort of way. His life didn't end like a story. It just ended like a life.

I think stories are there to make a certain sense of life... to track all those individual strands that are woven in varied directions and tie them up into one long yarn instead. I guess we do need to realise that life is not a story and often doesn't bother to make any narrative sense - but that doesn't mean that stories can't help us find meaning.

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