Finding the Story (2)
Words and silence have shaped my life.
Learned to write -composition lessons - getting high marks - this is something I can do. Stories really fired my imagination. Took me into a structured space somewhere else where I was in control of events. Free to see the world and myself in any terms I wished.
Writing was my private, hidden space. It was something I kept within me. So personal, necessary and vital that it was almost unthinkable to share it.
At the age of about nine my teacher was a benign, fatherly gentleman who took to reading out my composition every week as an example to the rest of the class. It was both embarrassing and profoundly gratifying. Embarrassment and the desire to protect my private life-giving space were enough to keep me from becoming big headed about it. In a way, the notice he gave to my work was a repeated miracle. It was as though it reminded me that I existed. Moreover, it validated my existence. It gave my life meaning and purpose.
I cannot imagine a teacher today being willing to justify singling out a pupil in this manner, and yet nothing less than this could have convinced me that this was something worth doing. Worth doing well. This through writing I could somehow make a contribution to the greater good.
I learned to listen to my own words. I learned that my words could be heard. That words could be a means of giving pleasure to others. Even of serving a common purpose, sustaining others in their pursuit of similar goals.
Christmas - ten years old - chickenpox - given an exercise book in my Christmas stocking - potential - a week’s pocket money. Mark the importance of this gift by dedicating it to a special purpose. A long story. And then, hard on the heels, the idea I will write a book. One day it will be published. From that day, defined myself - in my own head, at least - as a writer.
Remember, too, the period when I discovered silence. Twelve or thirteen. Outgrown Sunday School, short period in which I became keen to attend church as an adult. Presbyterian church. Large, plain, basilica. Services were cerebral. Mystery interpreted entirely by words. Do not even remember a “children’s address”. hymns, prayers, readings, sermon. Visual elements rare - baptism. Do not remember ever being present for communion. Harvest. Candlelit carol services were the visual highlight of the year. Dour. Only visual imagery was in the hymns. “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” - description and purpose for silence.
Words a way of venturing into the silence and interpreting it. Of exploring things that were not talked of, could not be broached, dealing with feelings and fears that I could barely see, let alone express. Articulating them cut them down to size, helped me look at them - to some extent - myself - in the round. Self-exploration as well as self-expression. And a means of puzzling over relationships - how they worked, how they ought to work - and figuring out the structure of the world in which I lived. How it was. How it might be. What might change it. Truest expression of this remained the story. Bring reason, imagination, memory, feeling, together in a way which created an alternative space. A space which could facilitate change.
Essays can be persuasive, but appeals only to the reasoning mind, and therefore only to a few, and to a specific type of person. A good story appeals to almost anyone. It takes you into itself. A good story becomes a space in which you can live your life. Not an alternative reality, but an alternative way of seeing this reality.
Writing enriched my life. Kept me sane. Asserted the existence of my truest self. Learned to write in small pieces. Short prayers, meditations.
Silence took me into the ministry.
The success of Enid Blyton in the Nineteen Forties and Fifties - and of J. K. Rowling in the first decade of the new millennium - rests firstly on the ability to tell a good story, and secondly, on the willingness to include those ingredients that matter most to children.
Good storytelling requires much more than a love of language or the ability to mint a fresh metaphor. Conflict, drama, suspense and danger are necessary as well. The ability to envisage a scene and then conjure it up with words so that the reader can see it too. A facility for vivid description helps, as does the ability to imagine characters and draw them with a few telling details. But by themselves these literary skills are useless unless the author also has an understanding of rhythm and pace. Good storytelling engages us because it is alive. It rests on dynamics.
Good storytelling also requires us to identify with the characters and to care about them, but we do not have to see them clearly or know them well to do this.
Another reason might be that, for all her faults, Enid Blyton knows how to tell a story so that it will grip her audience. “Five on a Treasure Island” is a master-class in the basics of story-telling. Conflict. Character. Plot. Pace. Drama. Discovery. Every move takes the reader forward. Hints lead to revelations. Conflict leads to confrontation. The stakes are raised again and again. Later in her career, she began to recycle her plots and re-use favourite devices, but this should not detract from a recognition of her skill.