I’m writing a novel. Just throwing that out there. I’ve had the idea for a few years but wasn’t ready to commit to sitting down and putting it onto a page until these past couple of months. It seemed indulgent to sit out and type up a story about people who didn’t exist when I was having a hard time just keeping up with my own existence.
But now I’m sitting here in my favorite coffee shop (Mazama Coffee in Dripping Springs) – halfway into the plot I’ve outlined and I realize I’m really doing this thing. It makes sense really – I’ve always been a writer. Actually, when I was a kid I used to go to my dad’s office in the summers and create miniature books out of printer paper and just make up stories to fill them with. In retrospect, most of them had plotlines that were eerily similar to the Chronicles of Narnia. Probably can’t blame an eight year old brain for a little bit of plagiarism.
In a world where things are chaotic and messy, stories have always helped me make sense of things. As a kid I had taught myself how to read before kindergarten, which led to me being basically the smartest ass kid of them all in the beginning years of reading. I had no sympathy for people still learning and was generally disruptive – so I got sent to the next grade level for reading time. When that didn’t work, I got sent to a gifted and talented teacher who put Harry Potter in my grubby little elementary hands and said “Go nuts!”
I remember the feeling of the world just dropping away for awhile as I turned the pages. I didn’t understand kids, they didn’t understand me. But when I was reading about Hermione and Harry and Ron I wasn’t lonely. In them I saw my own potential to be exceptionally brave, exceptionally smart and accepted above all.
As I got older the books became more plentiful – there was The Bloody Jack novels that taught me being a girl didn’t have to mean any one thing. The Twilight series taught me all the wrong lessons about love that took me a few years to unlearn. Tim O’Brien’s books in high school made me feel normal for my sometimes dismal outlook on life. In them I saw the potential for hope and reality to coexist.
When I got to college the stories fell off of my map. And in that time when my imagination was shut so far into its cage, I felt my dreams and my hopes grow smaller. Sickness got in the way. Misguided religious idealism got in the way. But most of all, I lost my ability to see any day beside the one in front of me. I lost my ability to see the story I could live. On the high seas or in a castle or on the muddy banks in Vietnam.
I found stories again when I was doing outpatient therapy for six hours a day after quitting my job. I was still suicidally depressed most days – incapable of seeing the forest through the trees. I wanted desperately to move forward with my life, but the damage I had done to my own soul felt irrevocable in every way. When I picked up The Awakening by Kate Chopin, I identified so viscerally with the main character’s identity struggle that I pushed past the anxiety that popped up any time I focused on one activity for more than a few minutes.
“I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”
For someone digging themselves out from under years of self-imposed ideals about who I was “supposed to be,” the story of Edna Potelier helped me see that the process of becoming true to self is chaotic and messy and sometimes painful. I found myself in that story, and to me that’s why stories matter.
In life we get lost from our truest selves so easily. We have so many messages telling us who we’re supposed to be, what we’re supposed to do. Stories are a place where we don’t have to be anyone. We just have to sit and intake the truth our characters present. We just have to observe and gleen any truths we can from the actions from which we are removed. Stories give us a space to learn about ourselves and grow.
So as I sit here, elbows deep in pages of text about people who’ll never really be, I remind myself of the stories that have changed me and taught me and shaped and molded me. There have been times when I’m upset with the way my story has gone. But I haven’t given up on stories in general. I think there’s so much for us to learn. I think stories still matter.