A Special Story

“Tell us a story!” my cousins chorus, scrambling onto their beds and looking at me earnestly. My Aunt is in Australia and my Uncle is in France – I’m still jet-lagged from the flight over and struggling to stay awake through dinner. It’s their bed time and, after the story, it will be my bed time.

“OK, let’s see … Oh, here’s a good book!” I pull the slimmest book I can see from the shelf. I really, really want to get to bed.

“No, a Special Steffy Story!” Timmy protests and the others nod their agreement.

“Let’s read this book,” I say quickly, sitting down and starting it before they can protest further. They settle as I get through the first page and they are listening intently by the second. Except Timmy. He stomps out of the bedroom. I don’t worry too much and I’m sure he’ll come back after another page. He’s probably sitting outside the room secretly listening.

I finish the book, tuck the two remaining cousins into bed, and go in search of Timmy. I’m shocked to find him with tears streaming over his face and immediately feel guilty for not pursuing him straight away. I had no idea how upset he was. He must miss his parents, or perhaps one of his siblings annoyed him without me noticing.

“What’s wrong?” I tuck my arm around his shoulders. “Daddy will be home tomorrow and Mummy will be home in four more sleeps!”

“I want a Steffy Story!” The tears flow anew.

“But that was a super book! Better than my silly stories!”

“No,” he protests, “yours are the best! It’s not the same!”

“Oh.” I look around the room and sigh.

I start with: “Once upon a time there was a boy named Timmy … ” and the story slowly unfolds. A Gryphon flies in through the window, lost and in need of a friend. Timmy helps him. Usually all of my cousins make an appearance in the stories, but tonight’s story is just for Timmy.

Timmy calms down as the Gryphon makes new friends and finds his way home. I’m exhausted and as I tell the story my eyes are half-closed, aching with fatigue. When I speak the words “The End” my eyes open and I see his bright smile, his shining eyes. It was a silly story – a nonsense story. He loved it.

He asks me questions about the Gryphon. He tells me a slightly different version of the story. We laugh and imagine different endings, different adventures to be had.

Timmy goes to bed and I sit down with a notebook, the pages fresh and untouched. I’ve kept detailed travel journals for the past few months, though not as much recently. I haven’t written a story since … How long has it been? Five years? Six? The silly “Special Steffy Stories” each evening have been a little ritual to get them settled into bed. They’re simple and ridiculous.

Yet each story gives my cousins such joy. I had forgotten how important a story can be to a child, forgotten how enthralled they get with magic and adventure and … the simple enjoyment that comes from a simple story.

I look at the first page in the notebook. I don’t know where to start. I have not written in years.

I write “For Timmy”.

That’s a good start, I think.

Then I write.

I haven’t stopped since.

The Mary Sue in the Room

During one of the creative writing courses I did at Uni I wrote a short story with a quirky character based on my sister. The little habits she has, her phobias, and her approach to the world … I was very specific. My sister recognised herself immediately.

“That’s me!” she cried – I don’t know if it was shock, amusement, embarrassment or fear that floated behind those words. Nevertheless, her little quirks have appeared in a few of my characters since then … Though not all at once. My teacher informed me that the character was too unbelievable as such a person could never function in the world. No one has told my sister this, so we’ll just leave her be …

You see, there is a bit of a disclaimer writers have to make, and we can wear it proudly if we want to. 

It’s true. No one is safe.

Which is why I am a little bit self-conscious when I write. I cannot write something from nothing – there has to be a seed, an idea, a source of inspiration. When I sit down and write, something feeds me … and I don’t think it’s the Genius in the room. He watches and encourages and draws pictures on the wall (please don’t ask how my Genius has morphed into a petulant child; I don’t know) and somehow things I know and people I know and aspects of myself and my life appear on the page.

Remember the writing competition I entered? The competition was to write a love letter. When I thought about writing a letter I immediately sat down and wrote to the person I have always written letters to … and then I cried a bit, because what I wrote was very real and very honest. Then I got over myself. Then I edited it. I made it neater, clearer, and took out a lot of the personal honesty that others wouldn’t understand and added some extra information to flesh out my “characters”. I made it fiction (sort of), and then I held my breath and sent it.

I won the competition.

Eager to tell everyone, I rang my mother and my grandmother, texted my father, emailed a friend … and they all asked to see my entry.

Crap.

I gulped.

I faltered.

I wanted to tell them a big fat NO. No, you can’t see it because you won’t understand.

Instead, I keep “forgetting” to send the email with the link.

How do I explain to them that, while there is truth, it’s not true? How do I explain that the anger and hurt I put into the letter was true five years ago, but not today? Will they acknowledge that I am different from the person on the page? Will they read it and challenge me? Will they accuse me of falsifying a situation for my own benefit? Will they read the parts that are fiction and assume they’re true?

Will they understand that when I write, I do just that? I don’t think, I just let it flow? Will they understand that I don’t want them to judge me, console me, or confront me based on something I’ve written intended as fiction?

There is a Mary Sue lurking in every writer’s portfolio … Writers seek inspiration from their imagination as well as personal experience, so perhaps it’s inevitable that writers fictionalise themselves and appear in their own work.

A Mary Sue is a character whose role is, in a nutshell, wish-fulfillment for an author. A Mary Sue is good at everything, loved by all, and oddly ambivalent about the fact her many magical talents and abilities set her apart from everyone else – can’t everyone flatten a man with a glance and hurl fireballs when their loved ones are in danger? Let’s face it – who hasn’t wished they could fly loops around a fighter jet while performing algebraic equations in their head and seducing the man they love AND making it home in time for Buffy?

I read my entry again last night. I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue. Is she me? There’s a very big part of me in there, but she’s not me. She is certainly not who I wish to be, so perhaps I have – narrowly – avoided the dangers of Mary Sue (for now).

I was awake most of the night wondering how to share my entry without the judgement, the arched eyebrows, the sudden worry that they, too, would be in danger of being in my novel. I’m not ashamed of my entry, but I’m concerned that the people who know me will recognise too much. I’ve written entirely fictional stories and people still claim to recognise me in the narrative, though I can’t see it myself (and I get angry at the suggestion, sometimes, depending on which character they decide is me).

When I woke up I had received a text from my Mum.

I read your winning letter. It makes me ache because I think I know the real names of the characters. Wow. Don’t be afraid to write about everything … Don’t wait for some of your characters to be dead – just write!

I sprang out of bed (despite the aching back and creaky hips) and stood for a moment in the middle of my room. I didn’t know which way to go first. I was busting for the toilet but I wanted to launch myself onto the computer to email the link to everyone. The toilet won, but now here I am, and here is the link.

Nice things.

I don’t like spending money on things I don’t need or can get cheaply “elsewhere” (which usually means online). I especially don’t like spending money on myself – at all, ever. Most of my clothes are second-hand (thanks to my mother and my old boss, both of whom get sick of me looking like I’m about to fall apart and end up offloading a bunch of clothes onto me) and I rarely buy things at full price – I’ll wait for the sale, thankyouverymuch. I will often pay for someone else’s lunch or coffee, buy a little gift for someone, or donate money, but I very, very rarely buy things for me.

Even when I buy books, the only item I consistently purchase for myself aside from food, I hold my breath while I enter my credit card details online or I walk out of the store feeling guilty and sick at the amount of money I just spent on “something I don’t need”. I sometimes leave new purchases in the bag for a week while I decide if I really need them or not. They are often returned.

When I do spend money on myself, I have to justify it. I must have a reason for buying something, and even then I try to go without it for a while. I spent Winter without a decent coat because I simply couldn’t justify buying one – I had a couple of “travelling” coats that I had overseas but weren’t suitable to wear to work, so I rugged up in wraps and layered scarves and walked briskly (remember, I don’t run) to work to beat the cold. My hair has needed a cut and colour for a month now and I still haven’t gotten around to doing it – yes, I can dye it myself, but I’m not brave enough with a pair of scissors! Earlier this week I promised myself than when the scales read a certain number, I’d get my hair done as a reward. Why do I have to justify “treating” myself to nice things? Why do I feel like I shouldn’t buy things for myself?

Last night, my mother and sister had a conversation while I was (for the fourteenth time) looking at a new mobile phone.

“She never spends money on anything,” my mother observed.

“Yeah, but look at us,” my sister rolled her eyes. “One day we’ll have spent everything and she’ll be rich.”

“True,” my mother shrugged, “so I guess she’ll have to take care of us!”

I’ve always been a bit weird when it comes to “nice” things. When I was younger I would receive new clothes and never wear them, for fear of ruining them. I have a particular memory from when I was ten of a lemon-yellow dress that was for “special occasions”. I never wore it. No occasion ever seemed special enough, so I outgrew it and it remained in my cupboard, labels still attached.

This definitely isn’t something to blame on my mother – my mother is (in)famous for buying new things all the time. She is excessively generous with money and gifts, and we’ve always had nice things. My mother, concerned for us fitting in at school, would often take us shopping for the “right” clothes to wear – I always opted for the “cheap” shops, rarely requested “labels”, and always kept new clothes pristine. I still do this today. When my sister cries delightedly: “It’s only eighty bucks!” I have a mild panic attack and try to find something else for under twenty.

Maybe I am a tight-arse. I squirrel away all my dollars and “one day” will spend them on something – a holiday, a house … bail? Just kidding!

I don’t know why it is that I never spend money on myself. A part of me feels like I don’t deserve nice things; I feel like I need a valid reason to spend the money and the money spent has to be the least amount possible.

I’ve been saying how much I need a new phone for a year now, even though I keep procrastinating because “my old one works fine”. In truth, the old one freezes, turns itself off, and takes thirty minutes to “power up” whenever I turn it back on.

I bought the phone. I held my breath while my credit card was swiped through the machine. My mother and sister made encouraging noises along the lines of: “You’re actually buying it? Wow, we were just saying you never spend money.”

Then we walked down to a jewellery store and I bought a bracelet for myself. My heart raced the entire time. I decided it was time to treat myself to something special – and to celebrate completing my thesis (I had to wiggle some justification in there). It’s a bracelet I fell in love with on Tuesday and, not being an impulse buyer, decided to look into the concept and then make a decision. I think my mother was about to take my temperature when I announced “I’ll take the green beads” and then proceeded to upgrade the lock. My mother and sister were almost as shocked as I was at this sudden spending spree, and I’m still buzzing from the adrenaline! Yes, adrenaline. From shopping.

My mother and sister had moved on while I was chatting with the sales ladies – which is my method for stalling the sale so I can be absolutely positively certain I want to spend the money, so I was left with the two lovely women, one of whom I had felt an instant connection with on Tuesday and was so excited to see again last night.

“I’m not unemployed … not anymore,” I said hesitantly. I didn’t know if she remembered me telling her this on Tuesday – telling her I wanted to buy everything but couldn’t because I didn’t have a job.

“I know, bella,” she smiled. “I know. You are going on a great journey and I hope you come back to tell me your story.”

“Oh, I will,” I smiled. And then I decided to test the phrase that has been in my mind for so many weeks – months – years: “I’m a writer.”

We laughed and chatted before I almost danced out of the store. I couldn’t stop smiling, my new bracelet hanging neatly from my wrist with the weight of pride and possibility in each green bead. Before I left she leant over the counter to me.

“Darling, in this life you just need to breathe. Everything else will work out – you just have control over your breathing. The Universe will provide everything else.”

Everything I need, I have. And I also have a new phone, a gorgeous new bracelet (with extra beads thanks to my sister and my mother), and a strange urge to grab a clean pair of knickers and board a plane to Peru.

What do you want to do?

“What do you want to do, Steffie?”

“Read. Let’s read.”

“What else do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, what do YOU want to do?”

“No, Steffie. I asked you and you have to tell me.”

“I told you already … You can’t want to do more than one thing – “

Apparently a conversation with a six year old can lead to enlightenment. And that’s exactly my problem – I want to do so many things that it’s overwhelming. Where do you start when one decision rules out a bunch of others, or another decision opens pathways to so much more? Isn’t that the point of decisions? I thought I’d made my decisions, but it turns out that the more decisions you make the more choices you end up having.

Yeah, yeah … we get it, Stef. You have all these la-di-da decisions to make and *sob sob* poor you.

I want to write. I’m pretty sure we’ve clarified that.

I want to live somewhere in my own space with my books on shelves and my magnets on the walls and my cuckoo clock popping out to say hello.

I want … I want to make the choice that will make me happy.

Want, want, want … so demanding.

I want it all. Why do I have to do one thing?

We ended up drawing pictures – or rather, she drew pictures while I mumbled incoherently in a state of fatigue. Then, after dinner with my sister and her friends, I came home and reflected on this conversation with a six year old (and my day in general). I don’t have to do it all, or just one thing. I can do something, then do something else, and … Make a go of it.

And if conversations with a six year old don’t inspire you, this should (thanks to my mum for sharing it):

Do it yourself! (but you don’t have to)

When I was growing up there was a certain independence that was encouraged by my mother, along the lines of: “You’ve got two arms, two legs, and a heartbeat – do it yourself!”

And that’s exactly what we did – we were pretty capable as kids, but then it got to the point where I simply couldn’t comprehend other people’s inability to do something. Whether it was incomprehension that my peers had their uniforms ironed for them or frustration that a forgotten assignment led to parents going into melt-down mode and rushing it to school via a taxi (my mother’s response would have been “And? I’m at work. You’ll have to hand it in tomorrow.”), I simply didn’t get this lack of independence – or, more accurately, lack of ability to think and act for oneself.

Don’t get me wrong, I still ask my father for advice and go to my mother when I need help with something, but I’m also fairly confident that, if left alone, I’d figure it out eventually. In the interest of full disclosure: I’m twenty something and I live at home – this is reflective of my financial status rather than my aptitude for life skills. I am easily frustrated by people who are (in my opinion) inefficient. Last night my mother gave me some pretty special advice as I lamented the loss of competence in … well, lots of things. “Stef,” she looked at me with a sigh, “you have to be more forgiving of those who are not as clever or capable as you.

Before you start singing my mother’s praises for being such a patient person, here’s a typical morning conversation between us:

Me: Would you like a coffee?

Mum: Sure, I’ll make it.

Me: Well, I’m about to make mine so I can make yours, too.

Mum: I’ll make them.

Me: I want to make mine, though.

Mum: I’ll make mine after.

We like to do it ourselves, in our family. We like to nudge (or push) others out of the way and just get it done – it means it’s done straight away and it means it’s done the “right” way. This also means that some people end up falling head first over a cliff when we barge in to “fix” things. Perfectionism is genetic, no matter what anyone says. I’ve got three generations for proof! Want to see me try to cook with my mother and sister in the kitchen? I’m sure you’re all familiar with the phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” but in our case it’s “too many women in the kitchen will kill each other with any object, blunt or sharp, that they can find”.

I have great admiration for my mother. She can run a successful business and mow the lawn and pay the rent and produce lemon delicious pudding of epic awesomeness (except that one time … ) and dress with a great sense of style AND fix the damn dishwasher when the door won’t close … this is a woman who, in my humble and completely un-bias opinion, can do everything. Unfortunately, in raising me to be pretty self-sufficient and capable, my mother also encouraged a fierce independence and sense of not needing anyone else.

This has had some interesting effects on my relationships – as it turns out, men can be a little intimidated by a woman who doesn’t need them to take the rubbish out, tighten the screws on the cupboard door, or change a light bulb. I mean, it’s great to have someone else do these things, but if the rubbish sits by the door for an hour and the cupboard doesn’t get repaired for a month and the light bulb isn’t replaced within the week, you may as well do it yourself. Yes, being a strong and capable woman has also led to impatience and – let’s face it – a demonic control freak who turns red at the sight of things being done “incorrectly”. The Hulk of control and perfectionism resides within me and bursts forth to criticise and pulverise incompetence and inability.

While drafting this post my mother and I had a conversation which led to me showing her a couple of paragraphs. She looked at me and, with her usual fierce determination, said: “Sometimes you have to let go. You have to let others help you.”

I have to recognise that even though I can do it straight away and all by myself, other people can do it too – and if they don’t get it right, criticising them won’t help. It’s a lesson for all of us, isn’t it? Let go. Ask for help. Teach them. Help them. And then you’ll never have to do it again, yet you can still trust it will get done – and get done well. Sometimes we like to lock “secrets of the trade” away and, in insisting on doing things ourselves, we neglect to educate others, to demonstrate how something might be done – and, gods forbid, allow them to find a more efficient way to do it in future. Fresh eyes can see things we don’t, and new ideas might even help us more than our habits do.

As for the coffee … Neither of us have tried to show the other how we prefer our coffee. Imagine if we did … I could call out “Coffee?” and Mum would have a fresh cup in a few minutes. Or the reverse might even happen! Fortunately, I’ve almost perfected the way Mum likes her tea.

Let go. Ask for help. Accept it graciously and … just breathe.

Oh … I should mention that Mum blames the failed lemon delicious pudding on me, but I’ll write about accountability and taking responsibility some other time. I never make my lemon delicious in a bain-marie and it normally turns out just fine!

No one died in the making of the pudding, incidentally, except for part of my mother’s culinary pride.