Origin Stories by Amy Alznauer
I want to talk about origin stories, not just my origins as a reader and writer, but how every story is in some sense an origin story. And I’m not just thinking of those tortured, transformative backstories of comic book heroes, involving murdered parents, genetic mutation, and acts of God. I’m thinking of the ur-stories, the ones at the dawn of human history, the creation myths that tell how plants and mountains, creatures and people formed out of chaos, out of nothing. But in every case, an origin story tells the tale of how something or someone came to be.
And as I said, that’s really the task of all stories, to bring something out of nothing. Which explains why writing stories is such an appalling task. If that blank piece of paper is really the primordial sea, no wonder we approach it with fear and trembling. Even worse, for each new story we must begin again, with nothing. But there’s one thing I do know. Every origin story, and so every story, must begin by driving a stake into the ground. We must be able to say, “Here!” We must be able to declare, “It’s on this little plot, with this unlikely assemblage of people and things, from this vantage that I will peer back through history and draw up an account.”
When I look back through my own history, everything is a blur. I do have a terrible memory, but it’s as if nothing ever happened to me at all. It’s the void, the roiling sea. But if I stop and claim a moment, an angle, then suddenly figures form out of the mist. A box, a girl, a tree.
When I was little girl I didn’t write much at all. I only aspired to write. There isn’t a single diary in my box of almost blank diaries – some with locks and missing keys, some spiral bound with rainbow hearts or puppies – that doesn’t confess my desire to write stories. And yet I very seldom wrote.
There was that one time in fourth grade when a girl with green eyes and the palest skin ever, who didn’t seem to care a whit what anyone thought and so was absolutely seductive, roped me into co-writing an epic starring only horses. I remember sitting on her bed cross-legged, reading each other our chapters. I sat there, stunned and jealous, as she read an equine birth scene full of sweat and flailing hooves and barely escaped quicksand. In comparison, my words seemed dry and weak, little dead things. When it came my turn, I could hardly say them out loud. After that day, I severed our literary partnership.
My desire to write paired with my failure to actually write rendered me relatively mute when anyone asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wasn’t like my sister, I thought, with a one-track, glittering obsession. She spent every waking minute singing or spinning around our basement, her tap shoes ringing determinate on the cement. Next to her and my green-eyed, saga-writing friend, I felt ephemeral, dreamy, not rocketing toward my future like they were, but free floating.
And yet, there was something I did do. I read, all the time and with abandon. I didn’t read book after book, clearing out library shelves. I read the same books, over and over. Even younger, before I could read, I would try to lift the illustrations out with my hands, as if I could make them live. Toad with his oversized reeds, the long, slanted body of Madeline’s nun, a wide-ranging, far-flung bunny finally nestled in a burrow.
I taught myself to read, I’m convinced, by this same single-minded attention. As the fairy tales attest if you stare at anything long enough – toad or nun or word – it will eventually begin to speak. So now, armed with books that could finally talk and a slightly older girl’s sober view, I took a new approach. Instead of attempting to get stories out of books, I tried to enter them myself. And if getting a word to talk required concentration, how much more entering an entire story, a whole forest of words. So, I began to covet solitude. I sought out all the secret hollows and spaces of my world, a quest which finally culminated in a tree.
The year I was born, my mother planted a sapling willow. I never thought much about it, until one day it seemed to rise up before me in the grass, rustling its green canopy. Of course, I don’t remember that exact moment, but all the moments, all the partings of leaves, all the passages up, gather together so that the tree stands in my memory shining and enchanted.
During those same tree-climbing years, I was reading of Anne Shirley, Sarah Crewe, and Mary Lennox. My tree became glen and attic and garden. I became orphan and free. Up there in the high branches, I not only felt that I’d entered the stories I loved, but that everything, the stars, the world, myself, seemed to get caught up in some great story. “One of the strange things about living in the world,” says Francis Hodgson Burnett, her voice leaning in close to Mary’s, “is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever.” Up there, I knew this was true, and that knowledge made me brave. I could give into that free-floating quality of my mind that I so feared, that seemed to be taking me nowhere at all. Up there, I could be the non-writing, reading, free-floating girl that I was. I could be a writer who hadn’t quite figured out how to put her words onto paper.
Memory sweeps history clean with time, with a stiff cornhusk broom, leaving only the bright, telling things standing. A box of empty diaries, a green-eyed girl, a spinning sister, and a tree. In fiction, imagination must mimic memory, conjuring up a few scattered but luminous objects. But it’s in those spare groves that story begins to coalesce, that we begin to see the origins of those strange gatherings. How did this girl who was once ugly and a boy who couldn’t walk and a wild moor-boy finally join up in a magic garden? How did they find themselves here, like this? Stories make sense of the impossible, gathering up the shining things left by time into wholes.
Lately I’ve been writing picture book biographies, and again, for me, it’s a question of origins. In one book, it’s the coming together of strange birds and stories and a girl that must be accounted for. In another, it’s a wise old grandmother, two brothers, and a revolution that must meet on a single canvas.
And behind every story and the reason I read and write is a driving hope – that our lives aren’t meaningless, that our fascinations matter and are leading us somewhere (most especially when we are children), and that in the end the stray pieces of our lives, the empty diaries, the strange gardens and girls and birds, are adding up to something, to some beautiful totality, some great story that will gather us up, too.
Amy Alznauer’s writing has won the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and the Christopher Award. She is also the author of: The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor (Enchanted Lion Books, 2020), The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity (Candlewick, 2020), and Flying Paintings, The Zhou Brothers: A Story of Revolution and Art (Candlewick, 2020). Amy teaches mathematics at Northwestern University and lives and writes in Chicago. Find Amy and her children’s books at www.amyalz.com.
Images from STRANGE BIRDS were used with the permission of the publisher Enchanted Lion.