I sat down to write my story.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. I could have written about doomed lovers, or an underdog triumphing over adversity, or an epic battle between good and evil. I could have explored the human condition, what it means to love and be loved, or the negative effects of capitalism on the proletariat. But that’s all been done before.
I wanted to write something different, something that hadn’t been done a hundred times before. But what is there left? After millennia of making up and telling stories, is there anything original left? Is there anything new to say?
I closed my laptop and groaned. Maybe this would be easier with a pen and paper; it would be more symbolically potent that way, at any rate. I doodled for a few minutes, but that was getting me nowhere so I went back to the laptop.
“Have you seen him?” said a voice from behind me.
“Um, who?” I turned around, to be greeted by a tall man with excellent mutton-chop sideburns.
The man grunted in a way that suggested I was eating into his very valuable time. “The prisoner 24601. The man called Jean Valjean.”
“Oh. Uh, no. No I haven’t. There’s a prison just down the street, you could-“
I was rudely interrupted by another man walking in from another room. Upon seeing my other guest, he mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like “merde.”
A fire lit in Javert’s eyes but before he could speak, I jumped in. “Gentlemen, while I have you here, I need some advice. I’m supposed to be writing a story, a metafictional story, but I don’t know what to write about…” I trailed off and hoped that the ellipsis implied the question.
Looking me straight in the eyes, Javert said “all stories end when justice is served. Write about a wrong that is righted.”
“Compassion for fellow man is more important; if we show compassion we are being just,” sermonized Valjean, although probably more to his cohort than to me.
Javert snorted, “Compassion is what the meek call weakness. It is far nobler –“
“Okay! Okay! Thank you, that’s enough,” I sighed. This was no more helpful than the doodles I’d been drawing. Maybe less helpful.
“You could write about me. I’m always popular.”
Death leaned her scythe against the wall and stepped between the pair of men. “Although isn’t every story about me, in a way?” She smiled sweetly at Javert, who seemed unnerved.
“Death is the noblest act of all, if it is done in sacrifice!” proclaimed Sydney Carton, who was now lying on my couch.
I mused for a moment. “But what do I know about death? Even as a teenager I never gave it much thought, except in horror stories. Obviously I’ve never actually died, or even come close, and I find the whole subject kind of depressing to be honest.”
Death smiled again, this time at me. I could see why that had made Javert so uncomfortable. “No one knows anything about me, honey, that’s why they talk about me so much. I’m life’s greatest mystery.” She stretched out her arms as if to say ta-da!
I swallowed. This conversation was not going in the direction I had hoped. “Well, I’ve never liked mysteries very much, and I’m not philosophy student.” I snickered awkwardly, but was cut short by a trumpet flourish. A balding man stepped down from his lion-drawn cart and held up his hand, as if to silence the room. No one was talking anyway, so he just stood there for a minute, establishing a more sombre atmosphere, I suppose.
“The great battles of history are forever a dignified subject for writing,” Caesar announced grandly. “I’ve written volumes about my experiences in Gaul which are still read today. The truth will endure longer than any fantasy you can concoct. For –“
“HEY!” I shouted. Valjean had been eying my fresh Bavarian multigrain bread, but gave me a look of feigned innocence when I jumped out of my chair. Now that Valjean knew I was watching him, I turned back to my laptop, where a striped cat was stretched across my keyboard.
The Cat grinned, “but what is real, really? Is your real really more real than mine? Or theirs? Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
I didn’t really have a response to that one. I was still mulling it over as the Cat disappeared when I felt a cold hand on my shoulder. “He was correct, you know,” said a thickly-accented voice. I turned to face glinting fangs and black hair in a widow’s peak. “Human lives are nothing more than compilations of imperfect memories, coloured by bias and emotion. History is written by the winners, as they say.”
Gesturing to Caesar, who was already in a snit at having been interrupted, I agreed with the Count. “Scholars’re constantly arguing over history anyway, finding new angles and arguments for who won or lost, who was lying, what they didn’t tell us…”
Dracula chuckled. “You do the same in your own mortal life. You edit your own experiences through a lens of emotion. You hold onto the things you wish and discard the rest. My story was committed to paper, and is more real to the masses than you are. In the minds of the masses, I truly shall live forever!”
I raised an eyebrow. “Until another author comes along and rewrites your story. The Dracula of the public unconscious is as-played-by Bela Lugosi, not Stoker’s version. And don’t even get me started on him.” I pointed at Frankenstein’s creature, who had shoved Carton off my couch, where he was now languishing dramatically.
“Woe is me,” he wailed, “my story has been re-written more times than I care to count! A man tempted by the bounds of human imagination, by the bounds of science and nature, is eternally tantalizing. In more than two hundred years, this fable has never become irrelevant or untrue. You constantly test the limits of human ingenuity, and feel obsession, madness, longing, and loneliness along with us.” Through this whole speech, he gesticulated wildly with increasing fervor. “For our tale speaks to the very core of human nature, something I profess to know little about, for I am a wretched, loathsome monster. My hideousness is kept vital forever by thrill-seekers unable to look away, and every time I curse myself and my creator anew –“
“YES, okay, thank you.” I had to stop him there. If I hadn’t, I’d have been forced to add another ten pages to this story.
Elizabeth Bennett stepped with care over muck left by Caesar’s horses. “Whatever you write, it should include a woman who knows her own mind. There are few enough of those nowadays,” she said coolly.
“Oh they can be found, if one knows where to look,” declared Dorian Gray with a rakish grin. He slid a questing hand toward the small of Elizabeth’s back. She slapped him.
“A mystery is the most satisfying of all tales, mademoiselle,” smiled Hercule Poirot. “It provides stimulation for the little grey cells, n’est-ce pas?”
“And It must have plenty of food and plenty of songs,” added Bilbo Baggins, before joining Valjean around my pantry.
“That’s enough!” I all but screamed. The room had long-since descended into a noisy mess, my control unravelling along with it. I took a deep breath and tried to calm the cacophony of voices surrounding me.
I managed to quiet the voices down to one. “I think I may be able to help,” said the Bard. “Take a collection of stories the public knows well, and write them in a way that will transcend time and place. If your story speaks to the human condition, as said the Creature, it will be lauded by the masses.”
“That’s easy for you to say! I’m not trying to write the next Hamlet here! And what help are you anyway? Some people don’t even think you wrote your plays! You’re not helping me at all!” I leapt up, my frustration reaching its peak. I looked around the faces in the room and shouted “NONE OF WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS HELPING!”
“Then make us say something different,” said Shakespeare gently.
Yet again, I had nothing to say. I closed my eyes, but I could feel the crowd slowly fade away. Shakespeare did have a point; my culture-obsessed mind is a permanent jumble of everything I’ve ever read or seen or heard. Rather than try to ignore or sort through this mess of influences, maybe I’d be better off working with them. Maybe acknowledging my literary predecessors would be the best approach. I took another calming breath and turned again to face my desk.
I sat down to write my story.
This was originally published as an assignment for ENGL 488, Queen’s University, Prof Yaël Shlick, October 31, 2012.