Thank you so much to one of our favourite authors, Vivienne Tuffnell, for this incredibly thoughtful piece on a subject that affects all of us.
I’ve long been haunted by this song by Tori Amos. It seems to encapsulate so completely the agony of not being able to speak what is inside us. There’s a saying that everyone has a book inside them. I disagree. Everyone has a story, or many stories but that’s not the same as a book at all. Plenty of people write books but who don’t ever tell the stories within them.
I don’t mean your life story or a memoir.
I mean stories that inhabit every corner of your being, the ones that unconsciously drive your every decision. On a larger scale there are stories that drive cultures, and even when the true origin of the story is lost, the power of that myth still drives that culture, often like a hidden rip-tide that can pull people under. When an individual takes on a wider story as their own, the results can be powerful and unpredictable.
Within British culture there are a number of all-pervading stories that everyone knows about and which seem to speak to virtually everyone. The first of these is Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s very hard to get at the real core of the story, so many accretions and additions have been made over the centuries by poets and writers, songwriters and film-makers. But the core seems to be this: as the Roman legions withdrew from Britain in the fourth century, a man rose to the top of the many warlords and chieftains and for a time held back the start of the Dark Ages. All the subsidiary stories about the sword in the stone, the Holy Grail, the Green Knight, Lancelot and Guinevere are secondary to this. One man, standing against the darkness, succeeding for a while before he too is swept away, lost to the darkness. Yet the story tellers chose to leave a tiny glimmer of hope in the form of the legend that Arthur was borne off to Avalon to be healed there and to sleep until the Nation truly needs him again. For me, that seed of hope when all seems hopeless is the key to the story, because it means the story has never quite ended.
The second story every Briton knows is Robin Hood. The truth of the story’s origins will never be found because the legend is so pervasive, but the likelihood (sorry) is that there were several men who used the title Robin and so over many decades the stories were joined together and became attributed to just one man. The core of the story is one man rallying many to fight a corrupt government and to restore justice to a land crippled by debt and wars.
There are others. Yet, while we may know our culture’s stories, do we know our own, those shadowy ill-defined legends that somehow define and underline our core being?
Children are bombarded today by more input in terms of story than ever before. Disney has re-imagined traditional fairy-tales and subtly(and not so subtly) twisted their core. We are seeing a crisis in both male and female identity, in my opinion, as a direct result of this twisting by popular film and television. Girls are reverting to a pre-feminist standpoint, choosing to focus on ambitions like motherhood and being housewives. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, yet, often they choose them out of a sense of finding something simpler and more readily achievable. Girls are fed a diet of Disney-esque princesses from babyhood but over the last twenty years those princesses have morphed from being damsels in distress to be rescued while remaining beautiful, to superwomen who can fight like men, are clever and resourceful and STILL look beautiful. This may seem a progression but I feel it is as undermining of girls as the original dumb damsel needing to be saved. It’s all too much to ask. It’s setting an impossible standard and it’s about time we fought back. I cannot speak for men, but the expectations for women have become an impossible ideal. Much of it is unconsciously expressed, but I feel this retreat from the achievements opened up by thirty years of hard graft by feminists is a direct result of these unreachable goals.
I failed dismally to have any sort of career, largely because a serious and long-term episode of clinical depression hit me at the time when I ought to have been finding my feet in the world of work. I had at the time a small child, complicating things further, but plenty of women go back to work when they have children, yet I failed to do so. My own psyche seemed to betray me, making it impossible to have held down a job even had I got one.
I found a way to speak my story.
My story, that tale distilled by countless idiots speaking sound and fury and yet signifying nothing because no one was listening, became hidden in other words. Fiction that holds more truth than I knew when I wrote it. Somewhere deep inside my mind, amid lost memories and hidden pain, something alchemical goes on and transmutes those shreds of ancient story that make up my story into tales than others can read and find a way of freeing their stories.
In some ways the song holds a key to explaining quite why it is so important to find and speak your story. “Years go by, will I still be waiting for somebody else to understand… years go by, will I choke on my tears till finally there is nothing left,” tell of the awful isolation of not being understood and valued, of being alone with our experiences, our thoughts. If another human soul understands us, our story, then perhaps we are not freaks, not outcasts and perhaps our story has value.
Some are decrying the ease with which a person may publish a book, either as an e-book or as a hard-copy or both, citing the wave of dross emerging and drowning the more worthwhile works in a sea of millions of words. I don’t agree. Yes, there are some pretty dire books out there. Mine may be considered among them, by some. Yet the chance to have your story seen and understood by another human soul is unprecedented in human history. Ordinary folks, without publishing connections and opportunities can have their story read by people who might otherwise never hear of them. Yes, it makes it harder for good books to be found, yet, for a long while I’d found the offerings by the traditional gatekeepers of publishing bland and oddly homogenised, at a greater remove from the author’s original vision of what their story was to have been. Yes, self-published books often seem to need an editor, or at least a better copy editor. They’re not perfect, and nor really should they be expected to be, just as us ladies are not modern Disney princesses capable of everything and anything and with PERFECT nails. Just as Disney has sold us a lie and we have swallowed it whole, so too has the publishing world. There is a template we’ve started to believe makes a book perfect and when we recoil from a book because it doesn’t fit that template, it’s time to start asking questions why.
The chance to free your story, and have it heard or read is one of the most healing things imaginable. I’m not talking about cosy Agatha Christie-esque murder mysteries or thrillers or whatever written with more than half an eye on the commercial potential. I’m meaning those quirky, awkward to place, genre defying oddities that have been springing up here and there, those brainchildren of inventive, questioning, often tormented minds.
Those are the stories I want to read and write.