Everything’s a story – I am a story – you are a story. (Frances Hodgsen Burnett, ‘A Little Princess’)
In my life I have started many more stories than I have finished. That is true of us all. The chance meetings—we dismiss those as lonely couplets that are fleeting and complete, but maybe they’re the start of a whole poem that’s interrupted before it can finish. Maybe if we followed them all through to their ends, there would be novels and novels, a whole library of relationships that could have been.
But of course, there is only time for so many stories, and we only have so many words. So we choose, and maybe sometimes we spend too much time on a story that is inherently flawed, that isn’t going anywhere.
Sometimes we find old stories and we don’t know where they were supposed to go. We broke them off after a chapter or two and didn’t make a note of the ideas that we had, and now we’re not sure how they’re going to work out. If they do, they’ll be different to how they would have been a few years ago, because we’ve changed. We’re a different person, so any world we build is different: it’s now and it’s us. The story has the same characters, the idea is the same, but it works out completely differently.
Some stories should be left in the past. They may not seem completed, but we’ll never get to a proper ending, and we’ll never be happy with them. We need to leave them where they were—we ought never to have opened the drawer that the notebooks were in. But we’re stubborn, so we did, and now we can’t stop thinking about those characters. We want to know what happened to them.
But in trying to find out, we end up back in their world again. We can’t start another story until this one is done. We’re stuck.
Other stories, however … well, we put them away because they weren’t working then, but now we’re older and we know more and this time, maybe, we’ll have the knowledge and experience to make it work. It’ll be different.
The wisdom, of course, lies in knowing which is which as soon as you pull out the notebook. As soon as somebody says, “But what about…?” and names a character you’d forgotten. To be able to firmly close the pages of a book and not be tempted to come back to them when your current novel doesn’t work. You moved on for a reason, so you don’t want to be going backwards.
You see, we have a lot of stories to tell. Every chance meeting on the train is another opening chapter. The observation of a leaf or a flower; the person who takes you hand and shows you something in some way you never thought about it … those are stories and the characters who populate them, ready made for us by nature. We can’t turn them down.
But there are only so many words we can use to tell stories. Sometimes, you have to choose.
Sometimes it angers me that I don’t have time to write all the stories I started when i was younger. Some of them were cut off too abruptly—some of them I still wonder what happened in the next chapter and if they’ve ended yet. Many of them are completely out of my reach now, and sometimes that’s my fault for deleting them. Sometimes, I don’t know what happened or where they went. I meant to carry on, and didn’t have a chance. I meant to keep writing but I was told I couldn’t.
I wonder if I’ll ever find those notebooks in a cupboard I thought was locked forever, or if they’ll turn up out of nowhere and demand my attention right now. I wish they would.
But I suppose I only have so much time to tell stories, and I can’t reach the conclusion of them all, no matter how much I want to. I’ll leave it to someone else. They’ll take it in a different direction, no doubt, but at least the characters will have a life of sorts, right?
This post was inspired by finding a notebook with the start of a story I intend to write some time last year, in addition to a Tumblr post about that one person you knew years ago and you sometimes wonder what happened to them, but you don’t know. There are a few people like that in my life, and I’ve got no way of finding any of them. Much like the plots I didn’t follow through.