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Tales From These Times: Why Stories Matter

The privilege and a duty of a writer is to hold a mirror to life: or that’s what I’ve always felt to be true of my life as a writer. To reflect the times in which we live. To chart our collective experience. To give a sense of meaning and shape to our times – in particular to those times that are strange and difficult. And these times we’re living through certainly qualify as strange and difficult – and beautiful, too, in that paradoxical way that life has of casting light and shade at the same time.

One of my favourite quotations on life and literature is from the novelist, John Lanchester. It’s one of those quotations that I have on the wall above my desk and that helps me navigate just about any story I’m working on. He said:

The architecture of life is tragic but the fabric of life is comic.

What he meant by this is that the big boulders of life are often deeply sad: we all, inevitably, experience unbearable loss. And, in the end, we all die. Some of us die sooner and more unexpectedly, and that makes the tragedy of the end of life all the harder to bear. But in the everyday moments – even in the hardest moments – there is life and light and joy and humour. For me, as a writer, this loss is what constitutes the magic of every great story. Because it’s true to how we live. And hasn’t it been true to these times, too?

The terrible, premature losses of life. The losses we’ve experienced on all kinds of levels: the loss of those we love, the loss of jobs and financial security, the loss of our normal routines, the loss of a million small things that are different for each of us, according to our situation.

But we’ve also gained from this time. We’ve learned to live differently. We’ve learned what we’re capable of surviving. We’ve learned how to relate to each other and to ourselves and our families in new ways. We’ve started new conversations. We’ve listened and watched the world more closely. We’ve sung and danced and painted rocks and planted seeds and baked bread and taught our own children. We’ve done many things for the first time and those things have brought us life and joy amidst the loss.

And through this time of light and darkness, I’ve come to believe, more than ever, that stories matter. They matter to me because I’m a writer but I believe that they matter to all of us quite simply because we’re human. We’re wired for story. They’re how we make sense of ourselves and the world and our place in that world. We talk in stories; we remember in stories; we hope is stories. We weave narratives because they help us live.

And yet, like many creative friends, I’ve felt a little paralysed by this global pandemic. Usually, unexpected world events stimulate my creativity: as a writer of contemporary fiction, strange events spark ideas. But this time it’s been a little different. Perhaps it’s the scale of it. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been able to simply be a watcher and a listener – I’ve had to participate, as we all have, in this life changing experience. Perhaps it’s the sheer scale of it that’s felt overwhelming. The uncertainty of when it will end and when life will return to normal – and what that normal will look like: whether our normal will have to be reinvented.

On a personal level, being an immigrant on a visa that’s about to expire; not knowing where our next pay check as a family is going to and; not knowing if, when this virus subsides, we will be living in the US or the UK, where my children will be going to school, what my husband and I will be doing, professionally – has made it all the more overwhelming. As has having a one year old, a three year old and a six year old at home full time. Many of the thoughts in this post have been scribbled with a three year old on my lap asking, ‘What you doing, Mummy?’ and then grabbing a pen and scribbling over my notebook. In other words, there hasn’t been much creative space left over.

However, with the passing of time, the mind and the body acclimatises to even the most challenging of situations and now, 50 days into our quarantine, my creative mind is beginning to come back to life. To make connections. To be inspired by the details of everyday life. To see stories. I’m starting to watch and listen again rather than simply reacting.

I’ve felt a new energy – and a desire to write a new story: or rather a series of stories. Stories collected from these strange times that we’ve all experienced. I want to write them down for me and for my children and perhaps for a wider audience, if there is one that finds meaning and nourishment in my words.

I have some ideas already, things I have observed and thought about; things that have made me laugh and cry and despair and then hope. Things that have moved me.  But I’d like to gather more.

If you feel able, I’d be honoured to hear your thoughts, your experiences, your stories. Send me a word, a sentence, a paragraph, an image an anecdote, a poem – something that distills this experience, for you. Share something funny, something tragic, something moving or mundane or vulnerable or inspiring.

I’ve always loved patchwork quilts. The way that small scraps of fabric from people’s lives – a bit of a wedding dress, a christening gown, an old flannel shirt, a faded summer dress – can, when stitched together, make a more beautiful picture than the sum of its parts. With your help, I’d love to create a patchwork quilt of these times.

You can send me an email; a FB message; a text or a phone call; you can send me an old fashioned letter (I love opening my mailbox at the end of our driveway discover handwritten treasures). Or you can just knock on my door and then stand in my front yard, six feet away, and tell me. In whatever form makes it easier for you. I can’t wait to hear your stories.

With love gratitude,

Virginia