On a family outing to a seaside town, my niece pointed out a house. ‘That place has Christmas decorations up all the year round,’ she said.
This was high summer, the sea was blue and the beach to our right was covered with bathers and sunbathers. And here, to our left, was a house with Christmas trees and tinsel in its front window. Strange!
We walked on.
After about twenty paces, my niece said, ‘I bet something really weird happened in that house…’
She had started to tell a story.
She didn’t know the end, or even the middle yet. But with those words she had started. That’s a sequence I know well by now.
- See or hear something striking.
- Wonder about it.
- Start to apply your imagination.
I guess it took us about a quarter of an hour before we had a story that explained why this house might have Christmas decorations in its windows all year round. I’ll write it down sometime.
What the story did for us was that it explained a mystery. It filled a hole in our understanding. Of course it wasn’t true – it featured a fairy on a Christmas tree and a handsome bailiff at the end who breaks in to repossess the television – and in that sense it didn’t explain anything at all. But it was still a lot more satisfying than having no explanation.
A world of random, unexplained things is a threatening place. Anything could happen there. We need to take control of it in our imaginations. Just listen to a child who has got to the questioning stage, asking Why? Why? Why? Those questions can be huge and unanswerable, as any parent knows. When you can’t answer with science, a story will do – and it may be a lot easier to get the child to listen. That’s why we have creation myths, and why they are still powerful enough to defy all the evidence that (say) the Earth took billions of years, rather than days, to form.
It’s also why, when you wake up from a dream with your heart pounding, trying to make sense of those images you can only barely remember, you might start to turn them into a story. Again, the imagination allows you to take some control over the wild places your consciousness has led you to. That’s how The Cup of the World started for me, and also The Enchanted Pool.
Both of those stories are tragedies, as it happens. And this takes us somewhere very interesting. Tragedies aren’t reassuring. If it was just reassurance we wanted, we would stick to love stories and rags-to-riches stories and that’s all. Romeo and Juliet would never have been written. But it was. We love tragedy too. Why is that?