All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them. (Stephen Grosz)
Inspired by a writing prompt to “tell the story of something that happened to you, but write it from a different perspective, or as fiction rather than fact” I recently shared a short story of mine on this blog. Originally written in 1999, Home Eleven is an urban fantasy based loosely on events and experiences at Newcastle’s Green Festival. You might wonder what relevance it has to our blog’s core themes of mental health and supportive friendships. To be honest, I wondered that myself.
I was persuaded by a conversation with my friend Roiben. I told her it felt a little like cheating to use a story I’d already written, especially one penned so long ago with no obvious connection to our blog’s topics. Roiben encouraged me to post the story nonetheless and use it as a jumping off point to discuss how it feels to reframe my lived experience as fiction. Her insight led to this article and got me thinking more generally about how we can use the raw material of our lives to educate, inform, encourage, and entertain.
Without giving away the story for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, Home Eleven is one of several tales written between 1996 and 2005 when I ran a fan group called Middle-earth Reunion (“The alternative Tolkien Society”). My articles and stories explored the consequences of asserting JRR Tolkien’s role as translator of authentic Middle-earth texts. In doing so, they skirted and deliberately blurred the boundary between fact and fiction.
Looking back, it’s clear to me that many of these stories reflect my yearning to belong and the sense I’ve always had of being on the outside of things. It’s a theme I’ve explored on this blog in articles including Belonging (Longing to Be), Like a Rootless Tree, and Impostor Syndrome, Self-Doubt, and Legitimacy in the Mental Health Arena. This rootlessness can feed loneliness, sadness, and low mood. I’ve discussed these feelings in posts such as It’s Not Enough, THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO, and Return to Down.
Although Home Eleven was written more than a decade before Fran and I met, there are some intriguing parallels. In the story, my first tentative conversations with Kai and Ellen occur at Newcastle’s Green Festival. Fran and I held our first voice call at the festival in 2011, a few weeks after we met online. The call was a great success, as I recorded in my diary.
I went to the Green Festival in Leazes Park. True to my word, I messaged Fran to ask if she still wanted to talk. After all my nervousness, I wasn’t scared at all, and we got on perfectly. We must have been talking for at least an hour. I don’t know how often we will talk like that, but we now know that we can.
Home Eleven ends with me saying goodbye to Ellen, with no suggestion that we’d ever meet again. (In fact, the story continued in Away from Home, founded in real-life weekends to an isolated cottage in Wales.)
I knew it was time to go. That whatever it was that had happened, had happened and was over. And yet I also knew something had changed for me. In an important way I had been allowed Inside something big and wonderful. Nothing could be quite the same again.
By coincidence (as they say) I was at the Green Festival again in June 2013 when I bade farewell to Fran before she set sail from New York to Hamburg. We planned to see each other when the ship berthed for a few hours at Southampton — our first opportunity to meet in person after two years of friendship — but there was a week of no contact first while she was at sea.
It seems, then, that my short story is more relevant to this blog’s themes of mental health and friendship than I realised. If fiction can be a valid and useful vehicle to examine, elaborate, and share my lived experience, what other stories might I write? What other events and experiences might I explore in this way?
There are a few candidates. I’ve already mentioned Away from Home, which continues the story of Ellen and Kai, and draws together a number of ideas I was working on at the time. Other stories are more problematic, in the sense that I’ve moved on a great deal since they were written; both as a person and as a writer. Some evidence aspects of my character and situation I’ve left behind or addressed in other ways.
My unpublished novella Playing at Darkness was inspired by the goths and other clans who gathered each Saturday in Hippy Green (Old Eldon Square) in my home city of Newcastle upon Tyne. There’s more than a little of the author in the story’s socially awkward hero Malcolm as he struggles to find somewhere he can belong and something he can believe in.
Long before he knew her name he had watched Stitch with her people in the town square beneath the window of his favourite cafe; had gone back each week to watch them gather while he lingered over his breakfast and endless top-up coffees.
He had felt drawn to the Gothrim. Like him they walked the shadowy border between Middle-earth and the real world but, far more than he did himself, they seemed to belong there, to know the rules.
By nature a loner Malcolm had gradually come to believe that his path had crossed theirs for a purpose and at last he had dared approach them with his new leather coat and the Tengwar tattoos still smarting about his wrist.
For all his faults, I still feel an affinity with Malcolm and the others he encounters in the story; not only Stitch but Halt, Devon, Ran, Shy Stephen, and the child Aleysha. They have a place in my heart and there may still be tales worth the telling.
Another story from those times, And Men Myrtles, explores duty, sacrifice, and loneliness, but also inappropriate behaviour and sexual assault. Its principal character William (Bill) Stokes is a complex but deeply flawed individual. He attains a degree of insight and wisdom, but it’s unclear how his fate would — or should — unwind had the story ended other than it does. I referenced the nobler aspects of Bill’s character in The Constant Gardener: How to Be Someone Your Friends Can Rely On.
These stories were all written decades ago. What’s stopping me writing something new that explores something that happened to me from a different perspective or as fiction? Are there events and experiences that might benefit from such an approach? I’ve shared open letters to various people including my mother, my father, and Fran, but the letter I wrote to myself comes closest to exploring my life from a different perspective.
We’ve known each other for a long time but I don’t think I’ve ever written you a letter before. I’ve thought of it a few times, even started once or twice. Maybe I won’t finish this letter either, or will decide not to send it after all. It’s scary to get real with someone you’ve known a long time but have never really been open with. But you know that, I think. It seems to me we would both benefit from some honest connection. So here goes.
A few topics suggest themselves, including loss, abandonment, bereavement, self-harm, and suicidality. As yet I’ve no clear idea how to treat these themes in other than a straightforward, factual, manner. It’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind, though.
Other Hands and Other Hearts
Before closing I want to mention with gratitude the creativity of other writers and artists we’ve featured on our blog.
Chapter and Verse: A Few Thoughts on Poetry, Creativity, and Mental Health
Warehousing Society’s Estranged: A Review of Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by Anne Goodwin
The darkness is coming, by Bernadette Barnes
I asked for help, by Charlotte Walker
Poem for Marty, by Sarah Fader
Positivity Rules! The poetry of Jules Clare
Millions Like Me: A Conversation with John Medl
Over to You
In this article I’ve described a few of my short stories and how they relate to real events and experiences. Would you like more such stories, or do you prefer pieces written from a factual perspective?
More generally, what do you think about creative approaches to mental health topics, whether that’s movies, stage plays, music, poetry, or other artforms?
If you have something you’d like to contribute, or want to suggest another writer or artist for inclusion, please get in touch, either in the comments below or via our contact page.
Photo by S O C I A L . C U T at Unsplash.