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They come to you, and say that they have a story, a really good story that you should really write.

In time you learn to recognize this, a certain gleam in their eyes from the very first moment someone mentions that you write. Then they sit on it, they observe you, sometimes they ask questions, trying to determine whether you might be the right person…

And when they decide that you are, they bring it up, and, with the air of offering rubies and pearls, tell you what it is about, and why you should really, really write it. And mind – it is rubies and pearls to them, and wrapped in a piece of their heart for good measure, because eleven times out of ten it’s something deeply personal and desperately important to them.

In time you learn to tell apart the ones who are obsessed with their story, and to give them a wide berth. You also develop a nice, polite way to deflect the ones whose stories just don’t interest you.

Sometimes, however… Sometimes the story is there – rubies and pearls, a glittering handful that stirs your storytelling mind to attention. And this, let me tell you – this is where danger lies. Because this is where they notice your interest, and they metaphorically rub their hands over finding a teller for their story, and begin to regale you with the details. Heaps of details – each, they assure you, of the utmost importance…

In time you learn to stop them before they even begin. You learn to warn, quite firmly, that once the story is given, it’s yours to tell. That you write fiction, and fiction doesn’t work like real life, and you must be free to change, twist, transform anything to make the thing a story.  You also learn – but this may take a while longer – to stick with the bare bones if you can, to stop the river of detail, and maybe just ask a few focused questions, because this lets you free to work.

And mind, not a few will balk at this. They’ll insist on why it is so very, very important that you know exactly what kind, colour and size of plastic beads they used for crafts hour when they were twelve… They’ll say that it really happened like this (as though it mattered!)… or perhaps they’ll even snarl that you don’t understand at all, and walk away.

In time you learn that this last may very well be for the best – but until you do…

There will be times when you are green at the game, or unable to say no for some reason or other, or taken by surprise – and then, before you know, you’ll find yourself sitting with your notebook and pen, across from the owner of the rubies and pearls, who keeps telling, and telling, and telling – and urging you to write down this and that, because it’s important, and it happened just like this.

So you go home with pages and pages of notes, dates, irrelevant detail, and you begin to write, and feel so fettered with a sense that the story is not yours, that you end up writing a nice bit of nonfiction. Or else you shake free, and write the thing the way you want – always with a certain amount of guilt and misgivings…

It may not even matter all that much, because, either way, chances are they won’t be happy. They will say it didn’t happen like this. They’ll want you to change the colour of the beads, the floor where the classrooms are, and why did you add the red-haired boy? There was no such boy, and you must take him out. And, while you are at it, they have rewritten the beginning, and that bit about the Christmas pantomime, and they have made colour-coded notes of the changes they want, the things you must absolutely cut, and the perplexities you should discuss… oh, and really, really, the pet cat must not die.

It won’t be long before you decide that you know just how Stephen King came to write Misery, and then ask, more or less crossly, why don’t they write the damn story themselves?

You’ll learn in time that, in many cases, that would be the best option for everyone concerned. A good few who think they have a story wrapped in pieces of their heart don’t really want a story. They just want to see on paper some memory, or unresolved trouble, or happy moment, or achievement, or regret… They want to adjust it to their heart’s content. They want to make it right. They want, to some degree, a catharsis – and, frankly, they had better go about it themselves.

It’s not always like this. Some are genuinely giving you their stories, and are happy with either your little reportage, or with what you make of their rubies and pearls. No, really – it happens. For the other cases, the really bad ones…

In time you learn to say no, thanks. You learn to be very firm when you do find rubies and pearls. You also learn to pick the glittering pieces and quietly slip them in a different story after altering them past recognition. You learn to live with the indignation when the recognition comes after all. You learn to stop being amazed when the recognition doesn’t come.

Mostly, though, you learn that, while the facts belong to those who live them, the story belongs to the one who tells it.