The perils of an overactive imagination

‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’

‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’

– Lewis Carroll

I’ve just written a short story where the narrator floats between different viewpoints of: a mad mother, a mentally challenged daughter, a boyfriend with split personalities, the law and a fairytale teller. When I was writing it, I was each of those people. To write something from someone else’s perspective, you allow your imagination to be that person for a while – to think as they might think, feel what they might feel, let their being sink down into your bones and walk around there for some time. It’s more than just having empathy.

The inspiration for the piece came from a news article, so strange that the story did feel as though – excuse the cliche – it wrote itself. But of course it didn’t, which got me thinking about why we’re attracted to certain tales. For that article to leap out and compel me to work with it, it obviously resonated with something inside me. All the stories a writer pens say something about them, something they want to explore – a mood, a belief, an argument.

For me, the compelling elements in that story were the blurry lines between real life and make-believe, fairy tales and horror stories, love and evil – and of the archetypes within those narratives and how one person can slide between many identities. Things  (life, relationships, people) are not clear cut, being one ‘thing’ or another, and our perception of these ‘things’ can quickly shift. Your feelings towards a person can fluctuate in a short space of time. Could you sympathise with a murderer? One who killed a woman in her sleep? Even when it was matricide? And what if the conditions were just so..? We read to learn about other people and in doing so, we discover something about ourselves.

I must confess, I often feel a puerile fear of things I am fascinated by. There are lots of stories in my head that I have to banish as they are too close to the bone. The ‘what if’ stories we all play out in our subconscious, the ones you don’t want to think too much about. The premise of a million blockbuster thrillers – all the terrible things that could happen, but thankfully it’s happening to someone else, not you. It’s just a story, a book, a film. Just turn on the lights, lock the front door, get under the covers – you are safe. Go to sleep now and forget about it. But if I’ve invited the stories in to skulk around my head, I can’t do that. So I feel it’s better to not let them in in the first place – even if they persist in tapping at the windows. (Interesting that mystery, fantasy and horror are in the top five best-selling book genres – what is it about being scared that we find so irresistible?)

Which brings me on to my secret superstition that stories have a way of coming true. I remember some years ago, when I lived by myself, I was telling a friend about a book I was writing about a mad woman living by herself who… as I was describing the plot out loud, I had to stop mid-sentence, we laughed. I realised I would never be able to finish that book as I didn’t want to let the mad woman walk around in my bones for the length of time it would have taken to finish the work. What if the woman never left? What if I allowed her to stay for so long that she thought she was home? What if I discovered I had turned into the mad woman who lived by herself who…? Life imitates art? Ahhh. No thank you. Enough. Next story please.

Old Native American tribes believed that when you took a photo of someone, you stole their soul. I’ve always wondered, according to the belief, what happens to that soul – does it somehow live on though trapped in the photo? That’s kind of how I feel about stories. If a writer breathes life into a character, they live on within the story. Possibly trapped, which is ok I guess, but what if they get out?

So the current longer project of relief I’m working on is a children’s adventure story. There are a number of barmy characters in there, but they are generally nice mad, not bad mad. Just a bit bonkers, not necessarily the type that need to be in maximum security. I wouldn’t mind if they manifested themselves into my life, I’d feel safer dancing around my kitchen with these characters than some of the others I’ve written about. I’m not 100% sure about the great beast we meet at the end, but I’ll let you know when I get there.

What about you? I’d love to know how characters affect you, or what feelings have stuck with you after reading stories. Let me know below or in a message! Happy reading.

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Copyright 2018 Joon Haque. All rights reserved.