The Stories We Tell and Those We Don’t

I remember standing in a bank queue with my two youngest children when they were about six and seven years old. The queue was long and there was an elderly man standing in front of us; I can still smell the grease in his hair and see the dandruff embedded on the neck of his brown jersey; he turned to me and we had a conversation about his war experiences. In no time at all, it seemed, we’d reached the front of the queue; the electronic board above the teller station beeped and the man proceeded to Teller 5. My son tugged my sleeve and I looked down at his earnest blue eyes. “Do you know that man, mommy?” He asked; I had to admit that I didn’t. My children were perplexed that a stranger would share his story with me and as explanation I told them that my mother had said I would always hear the life-stories of people because I had a face that strangers trust. I now know that if I don’t want to hear every stranger’s life-story, I follow my husband’s advice and avoid eye contact.

Seeds of story are scattered everywhere and often I scribble down a word or a phrase or impressions in my notebook that I overhear or observe. Goldie stood sobbing in her bare feet, wrapped in a pink gown at a phone booth in a hospital waiting area. Natalia confided how her sister wouldn’t eat broken food – crumbs of crisps or biscuits. Michelle told me she was heartbroken when her next door neighbour stopped playing with her; Michelle’s mother tried to cheer her up by saying, “You’ll be friends again once she’s stopped being Jesus’ new best friend.” Carrington told me how he spent a summer in Harare converting the school playground into a golf-course and how thirty boys played golf with one broken golf club. Each of these incidents are seeds that I have been able to use as starters for my short stories.

Other stories are delivered to me – sometimes with the written permission from people to tell them. An immigrant wants me to expose corruption at a world-renowned medical training institution. It is an alleged tale of academic corruption, mining-bosses, xenophobia and American spies. A lady once phoned to say that she had the solution for South Africa’s political problems – God had given it to her – and she wanted to relay the solution to Thabo Mbeki who was the South African president at the time. There are of course legitimate people who contact me from time to time, and after deciding not to take on their stories, I have, with their permission, passed them on to colleagues who were more inclined to their stories, or who had the necessary expertise to write them.

There are stories that I know would be delightful to use as the foundation for my own short stories, but I have chosen not tell them and the reasons vary. These stories are usually very intimate and while they would offer great scenes for my fiction, my friends would recognise themselves in an instant.

It would appear then that I sometimes feel conflicted about what I do and what I don’t write. I guess I don’t want to be a peddlar of someone else’s pain. I can write about painful issues, but I can’t insert the real stories of friends and family because then it would cause pain for them. That said, I do admit to having included personal impressions in some stories or articles that have hurt some of the people I love and I’ve had to apologise for that. Choosing what to write then is quite a delicate balancing act. Yes, writers should be able to write uncensored, but then they must be prepared to pay the price of that choice.

At present I’m writing an inspirational biography. I was genuinely surprised that I was awarded the contract because I had researched and written a paper on biography during my masters degree, and I had been quite turned off the genre because it is such a contested genre and there are too many agendas to be served – at least the writer’s and the subject’s. The only reason I agreed to write the biography was because it is not intended to be sensational – I don’t want to dish up dirt on anyone. I’m writing the biography because the intention is to serve as an inspiration to youth who badly need role models and hope for a future that they might not be that hopeful about. That said, it will not be a sanitised piece. The hardships and the experiences of the subject will be discussed, but not in the Hollywood-Tell-All exposé way.

One of the major issues for writers is that of making choices. We all have to do it, and we all make different choices and these choices result in a wonderful diversity for readers.

(Image: The Storyteller 2 – produced here with permission by the artist Jamie Winter)

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