Fiction to me is much more than an artifact constructed from language, ideas, thoughts, and images that reflect various dimensions of the human experience and serves to entertain the reader. It is a living entity with power to connect to the human mind in various ways. Reading can be therapeutic as much as writing can be cathartic. For sometime I have been planning a series of posts on the healing power of fiction, and I had envisioned this as a weekly conversation with readers and including guest posts by writers. It gives me immense pleasure to feature an insightful essay on the topic by Leonora Meriel, the author of The Woman Behind the Waterfall and The Unity Game to kickstart this series.
Thank you very much for writing this guest post, Leonora.
The Healing Power of Fiction
Stories from birth to adulthood
As human beings, we exist in a world of stories.
Children, with all five senses alert, learn the story around them in objects, colours, tastes, smells and sounds. Their families add the narrative with speech and explain their part in the story. They are the center of a glorious universe. All things turn about them in a miraculous manner. Food is brought, clothes are adorned, love is administered. They discover the joy of controlling the story with tears, with tantrums, with wiles, with smiles. They learn being attractive leads the story In one direction, being furious leads it in another.
It is a difficult time in a child’s life when the ‘center of the universe’ story begins to slip away. For some, it can be sudden – a new sibling. For others, it is more gradual – as nursery becomes school, they learn such awful words as ‘teamwork’ or ‘the group’ or ‘mutual respect.’ They are no longer the center of the universe. In fact, the universe is filled with children just like them.
With this realization, the story changes: we are no longer the ultimate monarch of a single world, but we are one of many, many other humans. So what does this make us? How do we differentiate from the others? This is where the narrative of the parents is most powerful. What story have they told us? You are a future space engineer preparing to be the first woman on Mars. That’s good – and you’re good with Lego too, so there is evidence for the story. Or, you are a kind, good child who helps everyone. Evidence? Not much, usually, but more will come as the story is believed.
In teenage years, the stories become far more important and their creation is an increasingly self-conscious process. Who am I? Who are you? And now – who are your parents? And how do we differ from them? (In as many ways as possible for the average teenager).
And at last into early, and full adulthood – when we really start backing up those stories with actions and hard work. We’ve created our main story line, and it’s harder to change as the years go on, because of all the time we’ve spent repeating its narrative and strengthening it with actions.
The power of fiction
So where does fiction come into this?
Fiction provides alternatives. When you delve into a novel, you see characters living out other lives, and making choices in them. You get to follow those choices and explore the consequences. You learn from their successes and their mistakes. You feel empathy with people you might never have imagined liking or understanding. You fall in love with the beauty of all the stories of humanity playing out and weaving together and touching one another. You look at the living stories around you – in your own world – with wonder and joy. You are imbued with the incredible possibilities of what paths your own story could take.
Because you have power over your story
In my debut novel, The Woman Behind the Waterfall, I explored the theme of a woman who was trapped inside her own story. Lyuda is a woman in her early twenties who is the single mother of a seven-year-old girl, living alone in a village in Ukraine. Lyuda suffered a trauma when the father of her daughter left her shortly after the birth, and after the death of her parents. Still young, she believes she has made critical mistakes that have led to her life being ruined, and that there is no way out for her. She suffers from depression and turns to homebrewed vodka to get her through each day, while repeating the narrative of her failure.
To the reader, it is clear that she has everything to live for: she is young, attractive, healthy; she has a home and a wonderful daughter. She could work, marry, move to a different city.
To Lyuda, however, all that exists is her story. The years of her relationship with her former lover play in her mind, along with the themes of blame and failure, and her extreme sense of shame prevents her from taking part in village life or building relationships. She has isolated herself entirely and spun a story around herself in which she is entangled.
In the novel, Angela, her seven-year-old daughter, decides to help her mother. As she grows older, she starts to realize how unhappy her mother is, and her subconscious warns her that this could be damaging to her if she doesn’t change it. Angela – a child of magic and natural happiness – decides to pull her mother out of her suicidal depression.
With the help of her grandmother’s spirit and her own protective guides, Angela shifts her mother into an alternate reality – the one that she regrets not taking. In this world, Lyuda is prosperous, happy, in a loving relationship with her husband – but she is childless. She explores this life, but finds that she is facing a similar experience of unhappiness and despair from her inability to have children. When she is brought back to the first reality, she is dazed. She was unhappy in both scenarios – so where does happiness come from? Is everything doomed to misery?
As Lyuda explores this question, we have the example of Angela, who finds happiness everywhere. She plays in the garden and weaves stories and realities and worlds with her mind, and she connects deeply with everyone she comes in contact with. She is on the border of all the stories – she flows effortlessly from her own story into that of others, and does so with immense joy. She is as open to every story as Lyuda is closed to all stories but her own.
At last – at last – after a brutal struggle to find a new story for herself, Lyuda opens just a crack to Angela’s world of possibilities. This is all that is needed. The threads of potential flood in, and Lyuda weaves them – clumsily – into a narrative of her future that she might believe.
One of the main themes of The Woman Behind the Waterfall is that of open and closed stories. When someone suffers from depression, their world is closed. There are walls that are impenetrable, partly because the person inside has no power to knock them down, and partly because no one from the outside can find the door. In my novel, this was represented by the waterfall, where no one could reach Lyuda, and from where she could not escape.
When you read books, however, there is no need to destroy these walls. You are not in your own story, you are in a different one. You can follow the struggles and loves of a character who is not bound by walls. Their successes can feed hope into your world. And each story can remind you that yes, yes, yes – there are other stories, and in your own life there can be another story. One that does not involve walls. One that involves adventures and romances and loving connections with people all over the world.
I have not suffered from serious depression, however I have experienced extended, long, dark places and I delved into the very depth of these when I wrote The Woman Behind the Waterfall. Writing it helped me to understand the beauty of every state of human nature – from the darkest to the sweetest. I would never have learned such a profound appreciation of simple happiness and connection and the joy of being loved and being open to love, if I had not been in these dark places. A period of time spent behind a waterfall can be intense, dreadful and scarring. But it can also be one single strand of a story that we are writing, and that we have full power to change.
From the stories that we were told from the first moment of our appearance in this world, to the stories we repeat to ourselves this very day, they are all just that – just stories, as in a book, that can be re-written, re-constructed, re-imagined. This is the job not only of the writer, but of every human being on the planet.
Happy story telling!
Find out more about Leonora Meriel’s writing at http://www.leonorameriel.com/