So as well as thinking about how magical storytelling is for the reader as I watch Arthur discover how much he loves stories, it’s also been on my mind how incredibly magical it is for the writer.
Stories have always been a hugely important part of my life. From those early days devouring them as they were read to me and soon after, as a reader, staying up long into the night, hiding under the duvet with a torch and a pile of Enid Blyton. Later as a teacher I watched astounded as a class of challenging teenagers was silenced by the simple pleasure of listening to someone read aloud; I relished in the power of stories as entertainment and as vehicles for so much more. And now as a writer I feel enormously privileged to be consumed by stories and (almost) be able to call it work.
The magic of stories and of storytelling is something I explored thematically in Lili Badger. The folk tales Lili was told by her grandmother as a child return with renewed vigour in her teenage years, their metaphors seeping into her burgeoning understanding of what’s happening around her, helping her make sense of an otherwise opaque and unfriendly world.
What I didn’t realise then, though, what’s only really beginning to dawn on me now as I move deeper into my second novel, is that as a writer I’m not really here to tell stories. I mean, that’s part of it of course. Relaying a story in a form and a style that captures peoples’ imagination and makes them want to read on. But ultimately I’m beginning to see myself a bit more as a vehicle for a story that wants to be told.
When it comes to writing anything I’m definitely a planner. I’m not very good at just sitting down with a blank piece of paper and waiting for inspiration to strike, though I know that’s the way lots of novelists work. Before I started writing this novel, as with the first, I’d basically mapped out each chapter with a little summary to work from – something to inspire me, and something to keep me on track through the brain melt of motherhood. That bit of the process really isn’t very magical – it can feel like a bit of a slog just mapping everything out, and what seemed like great ideas in theory start to feel insubstantial and incoherent. But once I’ve worked through that, once the overall story arc is there and it’s time to actually get on with the writing – that’s where the real magic comes in.
Moving from those little summaries to the actual written chapters has been an amazing process this time round. I don’t know if with the first novel I was just too tired or too excited to notice it, but as I write the second I’m struck by it almost every day.
How I think I know what’s going to happen, and then as the words flow from my mind to the page events subtly change. How I think I know a character, and then they do or say something that surprises me but ultimately fits much better overall.
There have been some very specific incidences of this recently. Like my main character opening a drawer to get something out, but finding something else entirely different. She’d forgotten it was there, and I had no idea at all. But actually it explained a lot, and suddenly made the plot a lot less clunky.
Then yesterday lunch time I was sat describing a scene I was about to write to my husband, explaining how in control Grace was and how she absolutely definitely wasn’t going to cry. And then I sat down to write, and as the scene unfolded she felt tears pricking behind her eyes and ended up sobbing. Again it actually made a lot more sense than what I’d thought was going to happen – and I suspect the writing rang truer for me being taken aback by it as much as she was.
It’s taken me a while to write this post as I wasn’t quite sure how to put it without seeming entirely bonkers. Even reading it back now it all seems a bit improbable. Those ideas are coming from somewhere, and I guess that somewhere must be hiding in my subconscious. But it’s strange and exhilarating how they won’t reveal themselves to me when I think but only when I write. It makes the mantra I began this project with even more important, and it makes me really very excited about the story I might discover over the weeks to come.
What magic storytelling is!
The Dandy was lucky enough to have a teacher at primary school who, for the final fifteen minutes of each day, wove endless narratives apparently out of nothing more than stray strands of thought carried by the passing air.
I’ve often wondered since if these rich folkloric tapestries were pre-conceived or, as they seemed to my youthful self, created on the spur of the moment to feed the hungry ears cupped in eager elbow supported hands, waiting for their daily fill of tale. No way to tell now.
That characters have their own agency, or at least should, I’ve no doubt, if they don’t seem separate, independent from the person that brought them into being will they ever seem real to anyone else?
I always think of George Eliot on Middlemarch and the setting free of Dorothea…
The Perfumed Dandy
Sounds like an amazing teacher! I’d love to do some storytelling with children as part of my new incarnation…
Having taught English for so long it’s really interesting how much I’ve learnt about the writing process just by doing it over the last year or so. It makes me realise how vital it is that we leave space for reading and writing stories in our school curriculum – there’s so much young people can learn about themselves and the power of language.
Off to reread Middlemarch now…
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