The Sunlit Story-Dusting Above Our Heads

Does it matter that there are no new stories in the world? This isn’t with reference to the idea that there are only a few distinct plot lines; rather, this is to think on whether everything that could have been written has, in some form or another, already been written. Don’t take that as a negative: on the contrary, this is a celebration of the recurring power of the stories that we tell.

Is everything we construct already first constructed elsewhere? In the arts there are trails of homage and foundation: Classical architecture has been extensively drawn upon in later design, film often relies heavily on previous visual references, fashion cycles round in reinterpretations of what has gone before, and so on. All of the stories of our cultures are woven not just in words but in stone, in moving images, in fabric, and so forth.

Yet, everything must start somewhere, so where is the kernel of every story of us? We will never know. Stories are like dust: they swirl and then, when they’re light enough and lit by time, they appear to fall into the sky. Before the written word, stories were breathed and known as such. Then, somewhere along the line, stories became of the conscious realm only when read in words.

What we have now is a desire for the new, the seemingly inspired, the fresh or quirky. What we’ve forgotten is that the dust of all the stories ever told still swirls high and low above our heads. Every story we open up allows some of this dust to fall into its pages. We often don’t see this. We think: this is new, or inspired, fresh or quirky; this is something no-one has ever felt or seen or touched upon before. We’re wrong here because we all draw from the dust to glitter in the sunlight in the air.

If we’re conscious of what we allow in when we open up our stories — in the careful slicing of their first lines — we can build in layers of great depth. We can weave in and build on our local social geographies, the legends of our cultures, the archetypes of the world. We can manage our words instead of stumbling accidentally on some significance in its writing. Conscious comprehension of what has gone before is a layering in itself.

Stories are surely greatest when they’re conscious stirrings in their reading. Even the simplest, barest, most succinct of tales can be beautiful in its layers of possibility. It is the story that leaves us blank that is the story written without love of what has fallen into it. We’ve all read plenty of these, though we don’t recall them individually and specifically.

Does it matter that there are no new stories in the world? All stories are part of the greater whole; yet it is only those stories written with an inkling, or a depth comprehension, of what has fallen into them that shine greatly. Our words are of the sunlit dust, as are our stories of stone, of moving images, of fabric, and so on and on.
(In keeping with the theme above, words are written here building on — though not intentionally opposed to — the thinking in a recent piece: A World Seven Billion Stories Deep, at the Very Least).

Some Subversion Deep Below

Once, in a future world where great metal trains ran underground in long snaking tubes that criss-crossed under the mass of the vast city above, something of great and small significance took place. One man saw: though it can’t be ascertained if any other citizen of the place took note. The city-world had reached a stage of insouciance, and citizens weren’t citizens at all — in the old-time sense of it all: citizens were dwellers of the caves they’d found, and every other soul had Medusa’s eyes.

Up above, in the constant throng, the city was a glass array of screens, and virtually every existence was not an existence of the space and time of the place itself: virtually everyone lived elsewhere, had their punch-drunk minds locked into other realms, such was the state of the state they were in. It was a sore world of small segments looked upon. No-one saw the sky. Life was millions of individual paving slabs wide.

Down below, in the catacombs of the tubes that writhed, one man saw an accidental sight that maybe wasn’t permitted any more: a woman sat locked into her own small segment still, opposite him as they trundled by and by and through and through, riding the central line core of the subterranean realm; yet her segment slice was lightly dusted with the gritty glitter of something wondrous but dangerous. She pushed a heavy finger along the insides of the object in her palms. Her lips moved, but it didn’t matter: the man was mesmerised.

Here was a deviant: a subvert who might easily be hauled away and flogged for her flagrant disregard of the modern ways. She held the thick, large object open and it was clear she’d had it for some time. No-one else saw, or chose to see: or, if they did, they didn’t seem to realise what it was she held. The man knew it as a book. It was real and crisp and loved and dense with words. There was paper still, after all. He wanted to reach out and touch it, have it, hide it away.

The woman scraped her hair behind an ear and kept her eyes down. What courage and naivety; what immersion and foolhardiness she showed. To think, a book, open and in full sight, even if in the tubes that writhed under the city mass above. Up there she surely wouldn’t dare. Down below, at least the dwellers of the caves might be dulled enough not to raise their neck hairs in fear. The man wiped the sweat from his forehead. He had to leave, yet he wanted to stay.

The doors slid apart and the fleshtide swept him out into the dank, warm, moist air. The woman and her paper book slipped away and into the dark. He wondered if she’d have time enough to hide her love, somewhere down the line. Out and up in the city mass, the heave of the modern future world swallowed him whole again. Down below, deep down where eyes can’t pry so well, or where thoughts don’t rush because of dullness, a real thick book exists: read in actual time and space.

In the Times of Paper

I wake slowly . . . my thoughts entangled. Soft grey light seeps round the edges of the shutters into this wide and cluttered space, outlining the shrouded furniture and feeding my struggling consciousness as though it were a growing shoot struggling out of the clinging clay.

— Iain Banks, The Bridge (1986)

. . . in the chilly chapel . . . the slick material of the blouse trembling in the light from the translucent panes overhead, black silk hanging in folds of shade from her breasts, quivering.

— Iain Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away.

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)

Twenty years or so ago I collected such offerings as I considered delicate, or striking, though didn’t attribute them to their authors. I kept them in a small notebook bought with my final Deutschmarks in the pre-Euro west of Germany. These snippets would be like pressed flowers, slowly desiccating in between the dark pages. However, they would, I felt sure, retain all their flavour all the more if the author wasn’t marked alongside them. When I creaked open that notebook, I needed to know who had written these flavourings. I had inklings, but I needed to be sure.

We didn’t have the world wondrous web back when notebooks and pens and paper were alive and well. Now we can find what we need instantly. I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Banks had written the former offerings. There is a poetic resonance to these words which, all this time in the dark, I find still taste of something rich and smooth. Vonnegut, on the other hand, struck me from the pages of a recent reading: he wrote in times of paper and how things just were, it seemed.

In the time of paper amazing seeds were being sown, I found: did I have some unconscious attachment to certain ideas inside me all along, or is it just co-incidence to find threads of plots or themes or scraps of thinking from twenty years in the dark manifesting in the more mature writing of now? Either way, I find that a little disconcerting, eerie, spooky. Maybe some writing takes all the time between the necessary closing and the necessary opening of a notebook to be. If we believe in such things, when the notebook urges itself to be opened this is the time when everything is ready . . .

What did the writer of twenty years ago know? Still nascent loves and early wanderings of the world could only fold out into words in ragged ways. What does the writer of now know? Love and form and knowing how to see may well have evolved, but his words are just as ready for the pressing into dark pages as scraps of twenty years ago were. One day, when the time of paper will return for sure, something unknown and unknowable will blink out into the early morning light, slowly, as though it were a growing shoot struggling out of the clinging clay.

A World Seven Billion Stories Deep, at the Very Least

Stories beget stories. I was group leading on sessions of discussions recently and we touched on subjects such as spaces from our childhoods: places of found sacred, secret and otherwise special significance. I watched as people told their tales of far-off times, of places in the far-off east and hidden oases of desert kingdoms: stories fed into stories, faces changed, bodies shifted. Stories told rooted out the hidden treasures of stories in others, whose tales came blinking out into the light.

When we talk of our individual truths — with the colouring of the exotic otherness each of us holds over any other — we hold all the glitter and the stardust of the universe in our palms. We should treat our tales told, and the tales we hear, with reverence. Each story has its own flavour, texture, rich- and deepness. Each story is unique in the world.

There are seven billion stories in the world, at least; there must be more. I see flickerings of television screen offerings: cities teeming with possibilities of the overlapping stories of all its inhabitants, and more. How many stories does the vessel of each of us hold? How many stories overlap and, in doing so, become coloured, washed, textured differently with each perspective telling? There are seven billion stories in the world at the very, very least. There are more. How many stories have ever been?

The planet is one vast book of tales. The stories we just don’t see . . . I’m intrigued by the smallest things. So when I see and hear a group of tellers digging into their pasts to bring forth the sacred delicacies of their childhood haunts, and the faces on the listeners fall into such moments from afar, even for seconds at a time I see new stories — such as these here — start to unfold.

I took a walk, days later: I saw three children sitting on a doorstep playing cards, reading comics, just the way I did when I was their age. I saw them for a few seconds and I was taken back and back. The stories I’d forgotten, or kept in keepsake corners in my memory, found their way up and in. Today I read back on blog posts and see the tales I’ve told myself, over the years, start to weave their way into the telling of my writing. We’re each of us made of stories, comprised of personal parts of legends and micro-mythologies of time and place. We’re woven with the significances of others who, in that moment of their love and impact, pressed themselves to our skins — and beneath — for ever more.

We may be skin and bones and liquids but our hard and soft material selves regenerate over time; the stories that we’re made of are our elemental permanent selves. That we choose to give them away, strangely, only makes them stronger inside of us. Our stories given out and over have the power to transfix the listening other: such is the gravity they amass in time. Stories beget stories, and they — seven billion or so at the very, very least — fizz in the air around us and in the essences of us all.