‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy; will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accident, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be – the Aristophanic view – snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’ We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images… It is this ‘narrative line’ that thus shapes our world, that makes it unique and engaging, and can even at times, prove as tough as a rope, a precious golden thread to hang onto when all else is unravelling. Just as bedtime stories have soothed children since Time began, self-recounted tales about one’s own life can be curative and comforting. You just need glimpse the blurb for Booker winning novel of some years ago Life of Pi by Yann Martel, to see this powerful aspect of fiction at play. The novel is essentially about the redemptive power of fiction to transform our world and make hardships bearable. * Spoiler alert* -The story revolves around a young shipwrecked boy set adrift in the Pacific ocean with only his fictional animal companions – namely a tiger – for company and as we will see, sanity and survival against all the odds. It ends with the revelation that Pi’s adventure was a story he told himself in order to survive, but confronts the reader with the idea that life is just a story too: ‘Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story?… The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?’ Lots of fiction writers have explored this personal reflex to fictionalize in their work, most recently Julian Barnes in his novel The Sense of an Ending: ‘How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make small cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly to ourselves.‘ Life is a story. And even more interesting, our life is not our life, but merely the story we have told about it – to others and ourselves. We are all the writers (and readers) of our own lives.
This is an idea that also intrigues one of my favourite writers Jeanette Winterson: ‘We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual worlds are highly coloured and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever reality we have chosen to believe in…It may be that to understand ourselves as fictions, is to understand ourselves as fully as we can. ‘ (From Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery)
To understand ourselves as fully as we can – we use fiction. Fiction is a modus of self comprehending. We may read for pleasure, but it is also for understanding. Same with writing. Same, with our own personal fictional sagas. So the next time you’re accused of living in a fantasy world (a common affront thrown at writers!) – take no offence – for we all are, to a degree. We are all living in a world of our own making, our own telling. The more ‘fictions’ we spin from reality, the more entertaining, enlightening and redemptive our lives will be. And whenever you hear someone dismiss fiction as frivolous and irrelevant – pah! -you may gleefully interrupt them by pointing out their own personal fictions. For everyone has their stories – love stories, coming-of-age stories, career stories, scary stories, fairytale stories and day-to-day guts-of-a-novel stories – they tell to themselves. Aware of it or not, we live in a world where everything is fiction and we are all storytellers extraordinaire. And writers by extension – are merely those who choose to record theirs in ink rather than air.