I seem to have been born with my head full of stories. Manufacturing stories was one of the primary activities of my childhood. I didn’t write them down. What I conceived was too complex for that, far beyond anything I was capable of writing. Until I finally learned to type in high school, I found the physical act of writing painfully tedious. So I didn’t have any interest in putting my stories on paper, but they were my constant companions at home and at school. I remember getting a note on my report card under the section called “deportment” saying, “Marion dreams.” It was not a compliment.
When I played with my friends I made up stories for us to act out. When I played with the marbles kept safe in an old cigar box, the shooters were adults, the regular-sized marbles, children. My dolls came so alive in my stories that when I left my room I was convinced they took over and continued without me. (I used to shut my bedroom door, announcing loudly that I was leaving, then tiptoe back, springing in to catch them out of place. Unfortunately, they were always too fast for me.)
I looked forward to going to bed, because, as I waited for sleep to come, I returned to my latest story, playing it out in the dark.
Where does that obsession with story come from? No one else in my family seemed to care about stories at all. When I declared a literature major in college, my father, a chemist, asked with deep seriousness, “What is there to study about stories?”
I have a granddaughter whose brain works the same way mine does. When she was three years old she could make up the most amazing stories about real people, stories so complete with tiny, telling details that you couldn’t believe they weren’t real . . . but they weren’t. Whether the other pieces will come together to make her want to write those stories down instead of simply using them to amuse herself remains to be seen.
We humans call ourselves the “storytelling animal,” another one of those self definitions that is supposed to separate us from—and make us superior to—the animal world. Though I suspect if we could translate the honeybee’s dance we might be less impressed with the singularity of our powers: “It’s clover! A whole field of it! And to get there you fly to the old oak tree, turn 90 degrees north and head for . . .”
And it’s not just bees. Our two small dogs see the neighbor’s unconfined labs rush to investigate the boundaries of their private back yard, and they tell the labs a story of fierce possession, a story made possible by their own sturdy fence.
But when my dogs are setting up their racket or the bees are doing their complex dance do they intend more than the surface of their message? (“Stay away from my yard!” or “This is where the pollen is!”) I’m not certain. I only know that the magic of human stories lies in their resonance, their unspoken meaning, the way they carry so delicately our deepest understanding.
Meaning imbedded in stories touches us, teaches us, becomes a window through which we discover the world.
We may not be the only storytelling animals, but we are, I sincerely believe, the animals with the deepest gift.
And I can’t think of a better way to be born than with a head full of stories!