There is a compulsion in every writer to create a narrative whether one is required or not. Case in point, my youngest daughter brought a foster dog home for Christmas. A little rag of a dog that had been hit by a car and would have spent Christmas in a shelter had she not been invited back to Martha's Vineyard by said daughter. Sprout, so-called, gimped around the house and put the other two much larger dogs in their respective places. Naturally we spent the better part of the holidays coming up with her life story.
She was a street dog, fending for herself in the mean streets of Holyoke, abandoned by heartless owners. No. No. No. She's the beloved pet of some old woman who died and the relatives forgot about the dog and she was left behind. Oh, the stories got better and better. She's the victim of some bad boyfriend's murderous kick. There was a car accident, and she panicked and ran away into a strange city, during the coldest, snowiest month. Throughout the day, little Sprout slept on various laps and never once agreed with the hypotheses being floated above her silky little head. Give us a clue, would ya? She yawns, looks piteous and goes back to sleep. The only thing certain was that she understood the job of being a lap dog.
Is there some innate drive in human beings that demands a story? How often do we ask: What's his story? Whether from mutual friends, or dependable gossips, we want to know the back story of those we meet. Standing around the buffet table, we tease out what's important to know about a stranger standing there, who feeds us his or her history bit by hint, by remark until we discern a personal narrative that only on better acquaintance will clarify by direct questioning. Maybe our buffet line of questioning isn't terribly investigative, unless you happen to be a reporter, with such queries as: So, what do you do? Which town do you live in? (On the Vineyard, of course, no one asks the direct question of: how long have you lived here? We have a wonderful method of getting that answer with the do you know, do you remember questions that readily identify the newcomer from the old-timer.)
It's probably a survival technique from our earliest days of walking upright. Define yourself, stranger. Why should we offer the comfort of our home fire and a slice of caribou if you can't tell us your story? Which gave the first professional storytellers a job - telling other people's stories; or, explaining the universe with creative license. I often wonder if early people really believed all that about the sun dying in the west only to be resurrected in the east as a Phoenix, or that some god was riding in a golden chariot from east to west. Or the one about the dragons at the edge of the known world. Maybe that was just some cartographer-wag's idea of a joke. Mythology is a common denominator within all cultures. Norse, Greek, Mayan, Native American, New Jersey. It was a way to explain natural phenomena, to control behavior, and, maybe especially, to entertain. So many of the great myths have become part of the canon in a classic education, fairy tales, and on the big screen; enduring themes of heroes, journey stories, and creation stories. Man has always had the urge to explain things bigger than he. Today we tend to do it scientifically, parsing the mysteries of the human genome not through narrative, but through persistent and painstaking study, which then lends itself to building the narrative of the human race. Just because we know more, and have refuted some of the older explanations for the universe, like winter really isn't Persephone going into the Underworld, it hasn't stopped us from creating new myths, new stories to entertain. For example, the details about the lives of modern heroes who are now called celebrities and whose lives offer up seemingly unending stories around the blog of our modern day campfire.
A fiction writer is particularly susceptible to the need for narrative. If we don't get it, we make it up; sometimes when we do get it, we still make it up. So the compulsion to create a life story for a little dog of unknown origins doesn't stop with conjecture, but flows on with detail and rock-solid certainty. In effect, Sprout's mythology begins with us. Unlike Aesop's animals, this one isn't talking. Her mythology also doesn't end with her beginning, it ravels up the future, and we imagine her living with someone who doesn't love her as much as she deserves. Which is why she isn't going back to the shelter. The rest of Sprout's history will be based on fact.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.