Writing Challenge: Writerly Reflections

Today’s Daily Post writing challenge is Writerly Reflections. I read a lot as a child, and still do, but the quote below marks the first time I thought of stories as beginning with one person and being absorbed and re-imagined by another. This revelation had a massive effect on my journey as a writer, though it would be many years before I would recognise its impact.

“Briskly she gathered them in a ring around her.
‘Listen, children,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if you can understand me or not. But you must try. It’s the only way. Someone has robbed you of a very precious thing. I will not have you cheated. This thing I speak of is neither gold nor silver, neither a red nor a green jewel. It is something a great deal more valuable. The other things I teach you – the figures, the words, the lines and the letters – are not so important – as yet. […] Your minds are like rooms, if only you can pull aside the heavy curtains, you will find windows – these are the windows of wonder. Through these you can see the yellow sunlight or the silver stars or the many-coloured wheel of the rainbow. You’ve all seen a rainbow?’
The heads nodded.
‘Isn’t it beautiful?’
The heads nodded vigorously.
‘The windows I speak of are the legends of our people. Each little legend is a window of wonder. Each time you hear a story or ponder upon a story or dream yourself into a story or break or remake a story, you are opening a window of wonder.’”
(from The Windows of Wonder by Bryan MacMahon)

 When I first encountered these words in a school textbook at the age of 12 they blew me away. Not in the dramatic sense, but slowly. Like a whispering wind that you get used to and only really notice when it shifts direction or gathers intensity.

All through secondary school I wrote stories. They progressed from stories about groups of friends having adventures to horror and fantasy. But I didn’t call it story-writing, I called it homework.

When I left school the adventurous spirit was strong and I went to live and work in France. I wrote page upon page about the sights and sounds, the people I encountered, the places I lived or visited, the food, the marketplaces, the buildings and the way of life. But I never called it travel writing. Those pages were the letters I wrote to family and friends at home, or to the friends I made along the way.

After I moved home, I studied, I worked and wrote many things that I thought of only as study or work. Then, when I was pregnant with my fourth child I became unwell and was forced to stop work and rest. Completely. Either that or spend the remainder of the pregnancy in hospital.

I spent my days looking out the window, or taking a stool as far as the porch and listening to the sound of spring rain falling on the forest. I had just bought a new house, so I was experiencing this with a deliciously fresh perspective. And for the first time in many years I felt compelled to write, purely for the sake of writing.

I thought of all the animals and birds living their lives in the forest without a thought to their human neighbours, except to venture occasionally into our world. I also felt the magic of those brief wildlife encounters. Like holding my breath while a badger slipped under the gate and ambled through the garden to reach the field behind the house; or opening the curtains one spring morning to see a mottled brown hare looking back at me.

Slowly the stories began to take shape and I wrote and wrote and wrote. Robbie the woodmouse, Millie the hedgehog, Poppy the young fox; they all became as real as the trees and the birds yards from where I sat.

One evening three or four years later, I was driving home with my eldest daughter. It was a dark, miserable evening and the area was blanketed with heavy, Atlantic fog. I braked hard as something ran out onto the road. It was a tiny woodmouse.

‘I wonder if that was Robbie,’ my daughter said, even though she was into her teens and way too big to believe that it could have been a character from my story.

We both laughed, but in that moment I realised that we were staring into the forest and seeing it not through the yellow beams of my headlights on a dark, foggy night but through our very own window of wonder.

Note: The Windows of Wonder is a short story by the late Irish writer Bryan MacMahon. It tells of a young woman who takes up a post as substitute teacher in a valley school notorious for having children with whom it was all but impossible to connect. One friend warned her ‘the children will eat you with their big brown eyes.’ She tries in vain to get through their barriers until one day she stumbles upon the problem. They have never heard the legends that every Irish child grew up knowing. In other words, their imaginations have never been sparked. Her stint as a substitute teacher is cut short when her employers realise that she is filling the children’s minds with these stories. But she leaves behind a valley that echoes with the sound of children playing, imagining, breaking and remaking stories.


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