September 20, 2016

The Stories in My Head

        Whenever I was alone as a kid, I spent a lot of time in my head, and much of that time was spent narrating.  Sometimes I put together the words I would use to describe what I was really experiencing - how I could weave into sentences the inexplicable antics of the squirrels, or the ridiculous decor in the corner house’s yard, or the color of the leaves against the shifting clouds in the sky.  I worked and reworked mental drafts of how I could write it all down later in my journal, although generally by the time I was actually writing in my journal I didn’t have time to record that stuff anyway.  Often I crafted more interesting, exciting, fantastical stories out of the raw materials of my mostly uneventful existence, and the more melodramatically romantic, the better.  While I was cleaning the bathroom sink I might tell a story of the Cinderella-like Princess.  While I was getting another box of cereal from the cellar I might tell about the Intrepid Detective exploring the dark and mysterious warehouse.  While I was walking home from school in the snow, I might tell about the Poor Victorian Waif, or the Rugged Arctic Explorer, or the Winter Woodland Fox.  Pretty much any time I was in a woods I’d be narrating something about elves.
        Perhaps this was the verbal equivalent of the stereotypical tourist so busy looking through the lens of the camera that he never sees the sights with his own eyes.  Perhaps this was Walter Mitty losing his grip on reality.  On the other hand, I think it often prompted me to be very consciously aware of what was going on, to note the smells and sounds and feelings in the moment, and to keep an eye open for the telling detail.  It was also writing practice, of course, as I sought the best arrangement of the most evocative words to turn a description of my plain life into something that could catch at the imagination.  For as long as I can remember, the urge to turn things into stories and to put those stories into words has been an ever present facet of making my way through my life.  I still do it, with fewer Cinderellas and Waifs, perhaps, but an equal urge to find the words to craft a narration of what I’m experiencing.
        Is this normal?  I have no idea - mine is the only head I’ve ever really been in, so I can’t compare it with what went on in other people’s heads when they were children.  I suspect, however, that everyone in my generation and earlier had to find something to do inside their own head, because what else was going to happen while you had to walk home from school alone?  I worry a bit that people no longer spend time in their heads.  The moment they’re alone (and often even when they aren’t) they can plug their heads into earbuds and listen to music, or a podcast, or chat with friends.  No one ever gets stuck with their own thoughts, or left alone with the world around them.  No one is ever forced to be in their own head anymore; there’s always an option that’s easier, or more immediately appealing.  Now, I don’t want to cry the catastrophe of change, the decline of the world, or the deficiencies of young people these days.  There are advantages to balance disadvantages, and the human spirit adapts to do what it does in whatever environment it finds itself.  All I can say with certainty is that when I was a kid I spent a lot of time in my head crafting narratives, and I can’t imagine being a person who had never done that.

        Tune in next time for a short story I wrote in high school capturing this habit of mine.

[Pictures: Illustration from Gods’ Man, woodcut by Lynd Ward, 1929 (Image from the Atlantic);
Frontspiece from God’s Man, woodcut by Ward, 1929 (Image from Amherst College).]

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