Every origin story has an origin story all its own, and beginnings (and endings) are a lie.
I don’t particularly like speaking in cryptic proverbs, but as I was writing my first book, An Unkindness of Ghosts
, a novel that’s simultaneously set in the future and the past depending on how you look at it, I came to realize just how true this was. The reason I couldn’t contain the story I was telling is because stories aren’t meant to be contained. They don’t have a beginning other than the one we somewhat arbitrarily decide on, and no ending that can’t be undone in a sequel. Stories gesture outward in an eternal spiral. "Once upon a time,"
and we’re thrust into a sequence of events with a history and context that may never make it to the page. A young student of mine once asked, somewhat distressed, “Why is Goldilocks so mean?” Is that a different story, or part of the same story we all know?
Life cannot easily be broken down into a series of trials and tribulations that begin with an inciting event and conclude in a reckoning. But neither can a story remain comprehensible when it contains all the minutiae and uncertainty of real life. Crafting a narrative with this understanding — that everything we write is a simplification, that beginnings and endings are more suggestive than sacrosanct — means discovering a way to capture the vastness of life without sacrificing the coherency that comes with focusing on a single thread of events. The plot stays focused, but retains the complexity of the big, wide world.
I’ve heard the advice that a story should start at the last possible moment. One writing teacher I had phrased it particularly nicely, calling it something like “the Passover Principle.” During the Passover Seder, a child recites the question, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?” Why is today unlike a typical day? We don’t write stories about the ordinary days of the year. We write stories about the special days, about the exoduses from oppressive regimes.
I keep that question in my heart with every story I write, while trying never to forget that the answer to the Passover question is that the reason this night is different is because on this night we commemorate the past.
The reason I couldn’t contain the story I was telling is because stories aren’t meant to be contained.
Keeping the past in mind imparts depth and complexity to stories. It gives us — writers and readers alike — a sense of the scope of the human narrative. Admittedly, this is a special interest of mine, how stories don’t belong singularly to us. They belong to our ancestors, who shaped the pattern of events that led to the present day. I think of these words in the poem “Why We Tell Stories” by Lisel Mueller
: "because before we had lungs / we knew how far it was to the bottom / as we floated open-eyed / like painted scarves through the scenery / of dreams, and because we awakened // and learned to speak."
In An Unkindness of Ghosts
, which is set on a generation ship with technology not yet in existence, I invoked the past because I wanted it to be clear that there’s no point in the future, even in a sci-fi future where the world is completely imaginative, where what came before doesn’t matter. The past is never really done with us. To bring these lingering effects of history to life, I imagined them as ghosts.
A haunting doesn’t have to look much different from everyday life. A haunting is more about the people who see the ghosts than the ghosts themselves. On my wedding day, as I was getting ready in the basement of an old church that was a historical site, the electricity suddenly got funky and cut out, the lights flickering a bit, the air shutting off, then coming back on. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, except that even though everyone in the room had experienced an electrical failure before, it felt different. Weird and opportunely timed. Maybe someone had just said something.
My Aunt Cathy then said, “That was Elizabeth.” Elizabeth is my deceased grandmother. Perhaps the reality is that shoddy electrical wiring in an old church basement isn’t exactly unexpected. It was a coincidence and nothing more. But Cathy saying those words, and all of us in that basement feeling it in that moment, that’s what made the experience a haunting.
Flashbacks. Brief confessions of past wrongdoings to a lover or close friend. A gaping loss that makes a character unable to connect with anyone or anything. Referenced wars. Old songs. These are all ways that the past appears in our stories in small, not easily noticeable ways. These things are ghosts, too, because they’re gone or discuss things from bygone times. They will never be alive and breathe the way they did before. But their effects can still be felt, and we still remember them.
When I write these days, I am deliberate about remembrance. I keep it in my mind with every character and every scene. Not all of my stories will engage with history as actively as a book like An Unkindness
, but when you actively view the world through that lens, it’s hard not to see the past everywhere and in everything.
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graduated from Stanford University with a degree in comparative studies in race and ethnicity, and holds a MFA in fiction writing from the Michener Center for Writers. Though originally from the United States, they currently live in Cambridge, England, with their family. An Unkindness of Ghosts
is their debut novel.