Off-schedule again, I know. But the fact is, I am taking this MOOC – that is a Massive Open Online Course – on The Future of Storytelling, with the University of Applied Sciences of Potsdam and Iversity.
They give us homework too – or creative tasks, which we can either post in a dedicated course page, or post on our blogs and then link to. The task for week 1 has to do with stories: which story did impress us most in our life? How did it do it? What do we remember about it?
So, this is my answer – and be warned: I cheat.
There are two stories.
One is a childhood fable, the other a teenage read. One was told to me – again and again, and never the same – the other I read over a few summer afternoons. One made me a storyteller, the other started to make me the writer I am.
Grandmamma used to tell me of the Sandman – the strange being who went around sprinkling his magical sand into the eyes of children, to put them to sleep and make them dream. Only, being Grandmamma, she never told it twice the same way, and never quite the way it was told in books.
I knew of the Sandman’s silken coat and prodigious umbrellas – but what no one else knew was how he gathered his magical sand in Grandmamma’s vegetable garden, and only in the short period when the artichokes blossomed blue. So the artichokes became a bridge between the dream-world and reality, and I lived by the bridge… Grandmamma would tell me again and again about the Sandman, and his adventures, and the dreams he created… I remember her secret smile, the glimmer in her eyes, her whisper as she asked me what I thought the Sandman would do next… And the thrill of joining in the game, of adding to our secret world, of telling stories.
So it was that I had been telling stories for a good decade when, little after turning fifteen, my father didn’t mind that I pilfered his copy of Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe. It was pretty stories I had been telling until then. With its tale of officers posted to a crumbling, faraway fortress, forever waiting for the fabled barbarians – and letting their lives slip as they waited for glory, The Steppe shattered the prettiness, showed me new depths, and answered some unvoiced, shapeless questions of mine…
I remember reading curled in an old armchair, and I remember Brahms’ Fourth Symphony as my chosen soundtrack. I remember seeing in my mind the Fortress, with its age-dark beams, and the yellow wash on the walls. I remember crying my eyes out as it became clearer and clearer that here was an answer to that vague ache that always took me whenever something long waited and anticipated came about – and seldom measured up.
And as I read, I realised that this was what I wanted to write: not fairy tales, not pretty, sunlit stories, but of this peculiar kind of loss that is no loss of anything tangible, of forever yearning for things that can’t be had, of prices to pay, of the wait itself…
And yes, other stories would come to shape me in later years – but few with the intensity of those two: the Sandman and Lieutenant Drogo still whisper at my elbow whenever I write.