When I was a kid, my grandmother never outright accused me of lying. Instead she’d cock her head, look at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, and ask, “Are you tellin’ stories?” My mother’s mother had a number of endearing habits. She said the word wash like warsh and fish like feesh. Her white hair was an adorable dandelion fluff, and she wore an old-fashioned apron when she cooked, sneaking me treats. She was pretty cute when she cursed too. I’m one of those people who think it’s hilarious when elderly people say naughty words, but it wasn’t just that I found her colorful language amusing. It was because I could see her when she did it—not her as an old person, but her as a person. I remember catching glimpses of her when she was moved to a nursing home after suffering a stroke and losing most of who she had been. It was close to Valentine’s Day and she and the other residents made construction paper hearts during craft time. I asked her if she was going to give her valentine to my grandpa. “Depends on how he acts,” she said. What a character.
I suppose writing, or “tellin’ stories” is a socially acceptable form of lying. Some would argue it’s also a form of mental illness, considering all the characters who live in a writer’s head. If that’s true, I don’t want to be sane, because I’ve come to believe that the characters are always right. That is, when I let the characters take charge and drive the story, it turns out much better than my original vision. I don’t always know the ending, and sometimes my characters surprise me, but that’s when things get interesting. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.
I don’t remember when I first started telling stories, but I do know I started by telling them to myself. Like a lot of little girls, I had dolls when I was growing up. My favorite dolls were mermaids and fairies, not Barbie. I remember going on a long road trip with my family and telling myself stories in my head, acting them out with dolls as I watched the landscape change from dry desert to green fields. I don’t remember the stories, or even where we were going, but I remember what it felt like to tell the stories, the excitement of watching a scene play out in my imagination. I had a set of Disney paper dolls—Cinderella and Prince Charming, Peter Pan and Wendy, and many more. They too played a part of my inner world, though never in their prescribed roles. I gave them different names, different relationships, different stories.
In school I was easily bored, and after finishing my assignments, I’d draw. Most of those stories featured me and my friends on wild adventures with mythical creatures, sometimes inspired by books I’d read, sometimes inspired by dreams. I’m not embarrassed to admit I drew stories even in high school. I wasn’t the best artist, but the habit kept me entertained, and kept me out of trouble. Without those stories to sustain me, I don’t think I’d be who I am.
These days I tell stories with words rather than drawings, but the experience is much the same—losing myself in another world, seeing things through my characters’ eyes. I don’t always know where the stories come from, but I suspect they stem from a desire to escape reality. Reality is so often dreary and boring, isn’t it? Where’s the adventure in normality? Doing what everybody else is doing requires no daring.
I like to ask “what if” questions. What if stray cats were really goblins in disguise? What if sea monsters did exist? What if that seemingly benign fixer-upper really was haunted? Once I have an idea and can see the world as my characters do, the story gets rolling and the fun begins.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016