Often I wake up and say, ‘What an amazing dream. I’ll turn that into a story.” Why does it never work? It never works because dreams and stories swim in different elements. They obey different rules (or rather: stories obey rules.) The dream disintegrates when you try to trap it in words. Stories, by contrast, thrive in captivity. They need the cages of plot and character just as climbing roses need a trellis.
But there’s something wearisome about the standard story. Someone wants something, they set out to get it, something gets in their way, they struggle to overcome it, the end. Yet stories weren’t always like this. The most fundamental stories, the atoms of story, if you will, are myths. These don’t tend to follow the standard story arc. They are both too small and too big for it. They are stories that simply say, ‘This is how things are’ and refuse to explain themselves. As the foundation stones they are immune to the question Why. The curious child stops here.
Could you still write a story like that? I couldn’t. It would be like trying to capture that dream, and you can’t do that with words. But what if you could use something else besides words? I’m lucky enough to have an early copy of Jackie Morris’s latest book, The Snow Leopard. The inlay blurb uses the word ‘myth’ to describe it. This is very astute, I think, for it’s not a story in the standard picture-book sense. It is more like the kind of folk tale you can imagine being handed down across generations by firesides in frozen mountain huts. I have not actually checked to see if the myth is a ‘real’ myth (i.e. really hundreds of years old) or an adaptation of one, or entirely invented; I enjoy the fact that I can’t tell. Either way, it reads like something that has always existed (and – crucially – would have existed anyway even if not written down).
Unlike a lot of picture books there isn’t a (metaphorical) dividing line between the pictures and the story. The painting and words don’t merely complement one another, they are very much part of a whole. On their own the pictures are lovely (in particular the way the snow leopard’s spots bleed into its silver fur, exactly as they do in real life – snow leopards are like living watercolours) but the words of the story seem fundamentally woven into them (a bit like lyrics with music – that’s a good comparison). This is not a book that could have been done as a collaboration; you can tell that the voice of the artist is in the words as much as the pictures. And the overall effect, I think, is very much like the feeling of a dream, like the ones I’ve tried so many times to capture.
At least now I know where I was going wrong. Dreams are delicate flying creatures. Try to catch them in just one hand (e.g. writing) and you will either miss them or crush them. The trick is to use two hands.