Storyteller

I like to tell stories that shift the world slightly. Good fiction should heal, somehow, it should tuck and twist the lines around everything just enough for it all to fit together a little more easily. The universe should make more sense to people. Humans wander around feeling like everything is out of balance, like chaos reigns, like their lives have no meaning and purpose and sense. I want to banish chaos, to restore meaning, to put the balance right. More than anything, people want to be the protagonists in their own stories. They want everything to flow around them a little bit like it would in a well-written novel, where they are likeable and relatable because the main characters always are. Where what happens to them has some kind of drive behind it, and you know that it’s going to have a satisfying ending. If it doesn’t, at least the tragedy or the drama makes you sigh with real feeling. People don’t want to feel like everything that makes up who they are is false.

This is why people give excuses to teachers and parents, professors, coaches, spouses, and priests. My printer broke. I came down with a fever, suddenly, and couldn’t write the paper. I couldn’t get home in time because the car broke down. My grades are slipping because the teachers are out to get me. I was only talking to her to be nice. I was only sleeping with her because the devil tempted me. Whatever. There has to be a reason to it. A story. If there isn’t a story, it’s too empty, too dull, too flat to be real life.

My story for my college (ex-)boyfriend is that I was falling for him and I was afraid, and we were graduating, and so I veered away in order to avoid all that pain and heartbreak I just knew we would feel for each other. That way, when I told him that, he could feel that razor brush of love, the scrape of sorrow, the wistful nostalgia for something beautiful that could have been true. I don’t think he knew I was sleeping with someone else, but either way, my story lets him believe that we were pure and good and that I loved him. It’s much better to be loved than to be lost.

Last year I told a story to half my family; my friend here was sick, so sick that I couldn’t come home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. I had to stay and visit, make soup and bring casserole. The year before that, another friend’s mother died. My parents like to know that I’m a good friend, a caring person, a responsible and compassionate human being. When I don’t go to the dreaded four-hour meal full of my aunt’s tirades and my father’s stoic silence, everything is a little bit better. My world doesn’t have to be miserable for days, and their world is sweeter because they believe in me.

If you pay attention to the stories, you start noticing them everywhere. They laid you off because money was tight in the company. He left you because he had to go find himself. She stopped calling because she got wrapped up in caring for her child, and you know what that must be like with a kid like that. I told my sister that I needed to visit for a bit because I was depressed, and just wanted to feel close to her again. I told my boss that I was so caught up in it that I worked through lunch. I told my dad that I knew everything would be okay. Everything is easier when you can fit it in a story, as small and cramped as that might be. Sometimes they are close to true.

There’s one story that I don’t tell. The purpose of stories is to heal, not to hurt. If there’s pain in a story, you know it’s there for a reason. I don’t tell stories that wound unnecessarily. I don’t see the purpose in it. Pain can be useful, but only when it brings you closer to some kind of resolution. I don’t tell her that I’m half in love with her. Even for a story, half is not enough.

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A Writer’s Block Conspiracy Theory

“Something’s strange about this,” she said. Mike only glanced up for a moment at the sound of her voice, lowered to library volume. Natalie was curled in the corner with her computer heating her thighs and a niggling sense of discontent worrying at her mind. “Really,” she insisted. “There’s something odd going on every time I try to write.”

Lenovo ThinkPad X200s

Lenovo ThinkPad X200s (Photo credit: Ronald HN Tan)

Mike sighed and shut his laptop. “Have you written anything?” Natalie turned her screen so he could see the glowing white page, blank and pure and hopelessly frustrating. He leaned back and opened his computer again, and said, “Well what do you want me to do about? Just write something already.”

“No,” she said. “That’s the thing. I’ve been trying to and I can’t. I wrote an idea down during class, but I open up Letters and it’s just gone. Vanished. I can talk okay and I can scribble something in my notebook, but as soon as the damn program’s up on my computer my thoughts just scramble and, I don’t know, I feel like I’m losing all the inspiration or ideas or whatever that I might ever have had to begin with.”

Mike frowned. “Okay,” he said. “Let me see. You know what, close it and I’m going to do some research. I’ll meet you here tonight, okay? You go take a nap or something, you look totally drained.”

Natalie nodded and gathered her things. When she said goodbye to Mike he was already absorbed in the computer on his lap, tapping and clicking furiously. He was a rather gifted hacker, she knew, and eventually he would worm his way into something interesting, if not helpful.

She did take a nap, and woke up feeling refreshed. When she left her dorm the sun had dropped beneath the horizon, leaving the sky a pallid grey and the campus doused in blue shadow. She stopped for a sandwich and then found Mike in the library, still in the same chair. He didn’t look up when she walked toward him, only tearing his gaze from the screen when she gently shook his shoulder. He said, “Hey, Natalie. I found something.”

She raised her eyebrows at him, suddenly dubious. “Yeah? Anything useful?”

Mike grinned. “Yep. Very. Look – ” He pulled her over beside him so that she could peer over his shoulder at a bewildering array of windows and tabs piled atop one another. “I got into the email of one of the project designers of the word processing programs. Namely Letters, of course. Look at this.” He double-clicked a file entitled ‘The WriterBlock® Project,’ which sprang open at the second page.

Mike began to read. “This project shall be kept in confidence between the committee assigned to dealing with the COMPANY’s Inspiration® program. The specifics of the effect of the word processor LETTERS shall be discussed here and kept strictly confidential.” There was a space at the bottom of the page here for a signature, and Mike scrolled past it to the middle of the next page and kept reading, his voice tight and controlled. “LETTERS is designed to implement the WriterBlock® method, in which the blank page induces a sudden and severe lack of enthusiasm, inspiration, and original thought in the mind of the participant or USER. The USER will therefore lose any and all motivation and ideas, necessitating his/her concentration and the prolonged use of the LETTERS program. The LETTERS program will then, by implementing the WriterBlock® technique, begin to siphon the USER’s creative energies through the computer, using wireless internet to carry those energies back to the COMPANY HQ, where it will be used in further projects. These energies become the property of the COMPANY. This technique and its use are highly classified, as is the entirety of the WriterBlock® project.” Mike stopped reading and looked up at Natalie, his eyes glowing with excitement. She stared back at him, struggling with a vague sense of horror and disgust.

“They do this on purpose?” Her voices sounded high and too loud to her own ears. A guy sitting across the aisle of shelves glanced up and scowled at the two of them, so she continued more quietly. “I can’t believe it. I mean, it doesn’t even make sense.”

“There’s more,” said Mike. “I could read you about loads of other stuff. This is a really developed project that seems to have started with the first computers. There’s tons of documents about it once you find the right people. I mean, for a company that’s so sure it wants all this crap to be secret, its executives and people never seem to clear out their inboxes.”

Natalie nodded, numb. She sank into the other chair and pulled out her computer, ignoring Mike starting to talk again across from her. He seemed very excited about all this. Letters was still up on her screen, and she raised her eyes to the white page. As Mike chattered, she let her fingers rest on the keyboard. She stared blankly forward, the unease and anger that clamored in her mind slowly fading away to nothing.

True Fictions

David wished that he could change things. He thought he could, sometimes. That’s what being creative is; writing is making a world happen with the imprint of ink on paper. In the little spidery lines where the black bleeds and snakes through the white, you can lean in close and see the beginning, the seeds of what is happening with each word.

There was a city, he wrote. He wrote and built its skyscrapers and its glistening towers, the windows that shimmered in the sun and the sunset that paled behind the neon glow of the stores and restaurants, cafes and tattoo parlors. With each letter he typed, it took shape, and the people began to stroll down the sidewalks. A couple, interlaced arms and somber clothes, ambled past him. A harried businesswoman skittered down the steps to the subway station on the corner. A tall man with a green mohawk and a glinting artillery laced through his face and ears slumped against a wall with a cigarette. At the end of the block, a sandwich board advertised “Free Booze!” in teetering chalk handwriting.

David looked down the street, and saw Mark saunting along on the sidewalk toward him. Mark was his main character; his fingers flashed across the paper, pen scratching, and Mark paused. He stood hesitating amongst the swarm of people and checked his watch, frowned, and then kept walking. David stayed still now, watching him, pen hanging in the air. So many things could happen now. Mark hadn’t heard from Trudy in a long time. Maybe he would do something with that.

Mark stopped again outside an alley as the pen scrawled. There was a mugger advancing on a teenaged girl, whose eyes fixed on Mark as he peered in.

David scribbled, then pressed his pen to the paper. A spot of black grew and widened under the point as he pondered. It could go in that direction, too. He looked at the girl, frozen with eyes round and frightened, and at Mark, leaning forward as if he were going to tip over. He wasn’t going to hear from Trudy again, David decided. That was in keeping with how he wrote, anyway. Early on, he had tried to write her into his stories. He had tried to write love as it was, as he experienced it, and he had tried to make her come alive with words. That was a long time ago. He never tried to write romance any longer. Everything else, he could paint and detail with words, but not love. It was just never very convincing.

Imagining

When Sandra got home, Josh was drawing at the kitchen table again. She leaned over his shoulder and he pulled into himself. He flinched just when she got close to him – she felt the pain flare, and forced herself to step back. The light from the window trickled down the line of his neck, and she stared for a minute before she trusted herself to speak.

“Josh, babe, what are you making?” She kept her voice low.

He looked up now as though he were just noticing she were there. “Oh, hey. So this is the Irralom. It’s a world, sort of like, um, Tolkien’s.”

She leaned a breath closer, careful not to loom over him. He uncurled enough to let her see the paper – it was a map, snaking rivers and little darts of mountain ranges scattered across a crumpled country shape. He looked up at her, and she pulled over a chair. “Tell me more about it, sweetie.”

A smile sprang to his face. “Okay, so it’s a magic world, of course, but it’s where most people can do what we would think of as magic, it’s sort of taken for granted, and the people who can’t do magic are different. I haven’t decided yet if they’re looked at like they’re special or like they’re sad and there’s pity for them who don’t have normal skills. One or the other though.” Josh’s voice was leaping now, his eyes eager. “The characters I know I’m going to concentrate on are living in this town here – ” He jabbed at a corner of the page with his pencil. “They’re part of the government of the village or whatever it is, like the mayor and her family I think.”

Sandra leaned her chin on a hand and watched him as he talked, smiling when his eyes met hers and hunched over the feeling in her stomach, the resentment and the sadness roiling like acid. He talked about his characters easily enough, but as he spoke he was looking through the window, or into the distance. Every few words his glance darted over to her face, and then left after a heartbeat. She imagined he was speaking to these people, seeing them standing behind her. He could see them so much more clearly, she thought. Sometimes she felt as though he lived with them more fully than with her.

After he’d fallen silent and turned back to scratching lines onto his map, she heaved herself up and slipped into the kitchen. Before long she had a pot bubbling on the stove and leftovers humming in the microwave. She stirred the water absently, letting her mind drift. Under the sound of the boiling water popping in the air and the light collecting in the kitchen, she felt very alone. The heat of the steam clung to her face as she stirred, leaning on the counter as if she might fall and wishing that she weren’t real.

Inside and Outside a Story

The teacher was saying something now, hoarsely and without much conviction. The young man paused to listen to her, the brush motionless in the air an inch from the canvas. He was impatient and wanted to keep going, but she did keep talking. The sudden desire to paint had nearly overwhelmed him, until it had soaked into him and he had always wanted to paint. As a kid in school he had dreamed of being a painter. That was how it had always been. Sometimes it nudged at his brain, a tickling feeling that told him he wasn’t always like that, but he ignored it. Ever since he’d gone to find a painting class he’d been so motivated, it was like he was an entirely different person.

There was a full paragraph now on the page. It looked so neat there, pressed against the margin, black letters marching in clusters only to hit the edge and fall onto the next line. Amy was pleased with the way it looked. It took her a minute to get back to it. She had to shake herself, to stop looking with eyes unfocused at the shape of the paragraph. It didn’t even say all that much yet.

The story was really just starting. She was writing about Luke, a young man learning to paint. He wasn’t very good at it yet, but he showed talent. He loved to swipe a brush across the canvas and see the color blaze on the white. It was satisfying, like banging a cymbal and sending a streak of noise through the air. The teacher was a bent old woman, who had a hooked nose and skin sagging from her face and a scraping quiet voice. He was a little afraid of her. She told him that he would never quite be good enough at it for his own standards – she hoped – and that was what made him an artist.

Amy nibbled on her thumbnail. Maybe that wasn’t right. Oh well, she could change it later. She typed a sentence, and then deleted it with an impatient tap of the keys. Was he impatient really, though? She couldn’t decide if he was in respectful awe of the teacher, or if he was bored and contemptuous.

There was an awful turmoil in his chest, so fierce and sudden that it nearly hurt. Luke swallowed, and wondered at the emotions warring in him. Fear and hatred, it seemed, and he couldn’t think why. Neither of them seemed particularly appropriate at the moment. The lovely old lady had finished speaking, and he was painting again after smiling wide at her. She had shuffled off to the kitchen, and he was alone with the soft melody and the rustle of the color against the canvas. He wished that he could just keep doing what he was already, without his mind and emotions all turning over and tangling.

Probably contemptuous, she decided. That really made more sense, and that way they could grow from that to a friendly relationship. Those things always seemed to start out like that, edgy and prickly. Later their relationship would develop. They might even be friends.

The teacher’s voice rasped from the kitchen, and Luke rolled his eyes at the ceiling. A pang of disdain struck him, and he felt he might stagger from the blow. What a dotty old lady she was! If this was how he had to learn he didn’t know how he would stand it.

That was a bit of an abrupt change. The bitter feeling replaced his amiable contentment so queerly and quickly that he stopped what he was doing, and stared at the rectangle of blurred attempts before him. Where had that come from? The glad feeling was gone, and he had been happy with it. This scorn sat in him like a bad meal, heavy and uncomfortable. It didn’t quite fit. A sigh heaved through him. He would just have to get used to this, perhaps.

The air was soon thick with paint fumes – did paint really smell so much? She thought about it for a minute, and then decided to leave it. If she had to, she’d go back to it later. Something had to happen, though.

His jacket was in front of him, and without willing it he saw his hands before him, swinging it over his head. The paintbrush lay on the paper towel, doused in turpentine and drying. At least he could be considerate enough to clean up after himself. He struggled with the knob for a moment, and pushed through the door and out. The teacher was walking carefully back into the room, stepping slowly so as not to spill the coffee, and looked up just in time to see the room empty and the door swing closed. Outside, Luke strode away, cringing at himself. He didn’t know why he had to go, to leave the poor woman like that, and he felt like he wanted to cry.

That was enough for today, her fingers were practically cramping. Amy flipped closed her laptop and smiled, satisfied. That was a good start to the story.

The Second Half of the Story

I went to see Adam again. It feels like I need to be there as often as possible, just to make sure he’s eating and sleeping and whatnot. He’s a dreaming child stuck in this young man’s body, and he doesn’t have a mother to tell him to do his homework. He’s more emaciated than he was, which is really scary to see. He looks too tired and sad to walk, let alone write for hours on end. Not really sad, though – I suppose it’s that when I see his face, pared to the bone and grinning, it makes me sad instead of him.

The picture of Theo that he sketched is taped to the wall. Theo looks more like Adam used to look than Adam himself by now. Young, smiling, just handsome enough to deserve the word. I told Adam he needed to let Theo alone and get back to his own life for a bit. After all, the character would still be there after a meal, a shower and a nap. The expression on his face was so incredulous, for a moment I felt like I had actually said something crazy. The way he’s working, it seems that he thinks Theo will dry up and disappear the moment he’s left alone, and the only way to keep him alive is by feeding him words constantly.

It’s becoming part of my daily routine to drop by Adam’s place after work. I fix him some food, drag him protesting into the bathroom and then tuck him into bed. It’s a bit like being someone’s parent for a few hours a day. I certainly worry enough about him. Mary says I look worried all the time now, and my forehead is beginning to feel tense and scrunched. I can’t remember how to relax my face, to not look anxious. I suppose Adam feels like this, but more. And instead of worrying over a friend, he’s worrying over a person he invented who lives only in his mind. It’s so frustrating – something has to change.

***

I just got back from Adam’s place. Adam wasn’t there today.

When I pounded on the door – usually he leaves it open for me – nobody answered. I kept on, and eventually I heard a muffled voice. The door clicked and swung open, but instead of a skeletal jumpy Adam I found myself looking at some man I’d never seen before. He looked vaguely familiar, so I thought perhaps he was a friend of Adam’d whom I’d only met once or twice. He smiled to see me, though, so I smiled back and went inside.

I asked him where Adam was, hoping that he was sleeping already. It was a guilty sort of wish that I wouldn’t have to deal with him at all today. This man just looked confused, though. There was nobody in the bedroom, and the silence was stretching. There wasn’t an answer.

I looked everywhere – in all three rooms, not that there were so many places to look, and checked the closets. Adam was nowhere. I felt an irrational paranoia, an unease that whispered perhaps Adam had collapsed, was in the hospital, had simply died and was twisted at the bottom of a river or someplace similarly lost and hidden. The feeling was growing and halting my breath, fluttering against my heart. The strange man was just looking at me, calmly and curiously, as though I were something new and odd to him.

I thought maybe he would have answers, so I asked, “Who are you, then? I mean, why are you here and he’s not?”

He looked relieved that I had spoken first, and said, “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know why I’m here, it’s different. I mean, I came from here, or someplace like here. But I don’t know this place.”

That was not helpful at all, so I went into the kitchen. It occurred to me that Adam might have left for something, and stuck a note to the fridge. He’d done that once or twice before, and it would be a good sign. It would mean he had left the building for groceries or errands or some other normal human thing. There was no note anywhere.

The realization that the man hadn’t answered my questions swept over me, and I turned to him. “You never actually did tell me who you were.”

“Oh,” he grinned. “Sorry. I’m Theodore. Call me Theo.”

I left after that, and I won’t go back.