Making Up Stories

One of my favorite games when I was a kid was making up stories. Using plastic figurines or dollhouse dolls or myself as the actors, either talking aloud or inside my head, I would narrate – what? Not exactly stories, now that I think about it. I can’t remember very many actual plots.

Making up stories about myself was more like adding an authorial voice-over that commented on whatever I was already doing. The joy of the game was that it turned the mundane act of walking down the street or taking a bath into something fascinating. Something you might read in a book by Sydney Taylor or Eleanor Estes, or maybe even Joan Aiken.

With the figurines and dollhouse dolls, it was about creating characters in relationships – families, neighborhoods, friendships. These characters rarely did much. But the personalities and jobs and back-stories I invented for them suggested all sorts of possible stories, if I ever got around to making them up. Only I never did. As soon as I had figured out who everyone was, the game was pretty much over. And the next time I took the toys out, the joy of turning them into a whole new set of characters was impossible to resist.

When I was around 10, someone  (my aunt? my sister?) gave me a box of cards designed by Charles Eames. They have notches that let you hook them together and build with them. But what’s really great about them is that each one has a photograph of some small object or set of objects – ordinary everyday objects like spools of thread, pills, vegetables, eyeglasses, and less familiar objects like a katchina doll or an abacus.

The set is meant to convey a multinational, we-are-all-one message, something like, all of humanity shares a single home. Which is great. But what interested me more were the different personalities the pictures suggested. The pills might be a sickly old woman, the eyeglasses a professor, the hard candy a happy child. Each time the cards were shuffled and sorted, a new set of family units emerged. The challenge was to assign the cards in each set personalities to construct a plausible household. Again there were no actual stories. But the process of creating a story-esque aura was an indescribable pleasure.

At some point, I started writing the stories down — first in spiral notebooks, and then at the typewriter, and finally on the computer. You might think that committing words to a page would force me to quit fooling around. And I have managed to  complete a bunch of kids’ books, some short stories, and one rather ambitious novel. But for each completed story, there are at least ten that I have abandoned in various stages of incompletion, because I got bored or frustrated or, most often, because I started writing in hopes that a plan would unfold, and it never did.

How do people manage to write stories? Even though I have done it myself, each time I start anew, I’m at a loss. Should I figure everything out in advance, or just start writing and see where it goes?

Right now I have what feels like a very promising idea for a new book. I know my protagonist and what her situation is when the story begins. I know what the event is that’s going to throw her life into turmoil and make her question everything she thought she knew. I know how she will respond, and how she will be changed, and I’m pretty sure I know how it will all turn out and where the ending will leave things.

I know where and when it takes place, and who the subsidiary characters are, and I have a pretty good idea of what motives them, and how they will be changed in the course of the book. I know how long the book should be, and how the narrative arc should flow from one chapter to the next.

But there’s so much I still don’t know. For example, what all these people’s jobs are. And where they grew up. What they look like. What sort of music they listen to. Whether they believe in God or read books or know how to cook. Do they wear glasses? Get along with their parents? Have speech impediments? Follow sports? Vote? There are so many questions, and so many possible answers. What if I get it wrong?

Maybe what I need to do is stop taking the process so seriously. Maybe I need to forget that I have a finished book and an agent who’s shopping it. Forget that being a writer is my only job now. Forget that I’m trying to start a new book. Maybe I need to remember the fun of making stuff up, and just let myself play.

Wish me luck.

(These aren’t my toys. They’re my kids’. But you get the idea)

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2 Responses to “Making Up Stories”

  1. Amalia Gladhart Says:

    Play! But I like your questions, all those unknowns. I’m thinking a couple of near-sighted basketball fans, a God-fearing lawyer with a stutter who hasn’t voted in twenty-five years, an emergency room nurse who lives on mac and cheese out of the box, because he never learned how to cook. And is that a headless mermaid at the back of the photo?

    • Ruth Horowitz Says:

      I will give your suggestions all due consideration. And yes, of course that’s a headless mermaid. What toy box would be complete without one?

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