Where do stories come from?
The other day one of my oldest friends was clearing out her attic and found a letter I’d written to her thirty years ago….
Friday Sept 24 1982
‘At the moment I’m feeling a little shaken up since we drove home through very wet dark streets & I almost knocked a man off his motorbike. I can still hear the thud as he hit the car. We stopped and fortunately he was riding off into the dark but for a few dreadful moments I was afraid I might have seriously injured or even killed him. Makes you wonder what that must feel like.’
I had no conscious recollection of this incident when I started to write A Trick of the Mind. Yet thirty years later the idea got its claws into me- what if you heard about a hit and run, became haunted by the idea you’d injured someone, and sought the victim out to atone? Leading yourself down an even more damaging route and a worse outcome than the one you were first afraid of?
This scenario is the premise of A Trick of the Mind –Ellie suffers a nagging doubt that the thump she feels on her car as she drives down a country lane alone might have been a person and, later, the anxiety over whether the person might have died or be seriously injured forces her to seek him out in hospital- where she ‘unleashes a nightmare’ as the Daily Mail reviewer Geoffrey Wansell put it.
Perhaps stories emerge or resonate for us writers when they are already stored away somewhere deep in our unconscious.
When I wrote The Darkening Hour, about a woman who tries to get her life back on track by hiring a domestic worker from Morocco, I had a scene where the two women find themselves glancing in the mirror at the same time, inevitably comparing themselves with one another. Later I found a diary I had written while working as an au pair in France when I was nineteen years old. In it I had recorded a moment when my employer and I caught each other looking in the same mirror and I wrote that I wondered what she was thinking, what comparisons she was drawing, whether there was hidden envy for my youth, or smugness because she was rich and successful and able to employ staff while I was a naïve and penniless teenager.
This fleeting scene must have stayed with me without my being consciously aware of it, surfacing in The Darkening Hour BEFORE discovering it in my diary.
Which makes me wonder whether the stories we write are already there in our deepest unconscious and are simply asking to be uncovered, rather than constructed from scratch? Whether we are almost programmed to write what we write, like it or not, reworking old themes and memories in new ways, but always worrying away at those thoughts laid down many years ago.
It makes you wonder whether we are really free agents at all when it comes to ‘creating’ stories?
I remember someone, Woody Allen, I think saying his films really told the same story over and over again in different guises, with different characters, locations, settings. So diverse are the variants that it is often difficult to spot the fact the underlying story is the same.
I am gradually realizing that I often repeat the same theme in a different guise in my novels- a recurring one being the character who inadvertently causes someone else’s injury or death in a circuitous way whilst trying their best to steer away from causing harm. It’s a plot that has its roots in Oedipus Rex. (Oedipus told by the oracle he would kill his father and marry his mother spends his life traveling as far from them as he can to avoid this happening, of course finally and inadvertently fulfilling the prophecy).
This plot was something I never consciously used, but it must be a story line that haunts me at an unconscious level.
And it makes me wonder- are we destined to write the same basic plot over and over again as if obsessed with the fact we can never quite get it right and so need to rework it, in ever newer ways? Are we uncovering stories, images and scenes we laid down years ago and that never really left us?
Are we really just writing the same novel with different characters, place and action?
And if so, does it matter?
I wonder what recurrent story lines emerge in other novels you have read?
And what recurrent preoccupations propel other writers’ stories?