Where stories come from: Writers Play with Dolls

Writing School

When I write, my characters tend to step out fully formed and they simply insist I sit down and take dictation. But how did I get to that place? Was I talking to invisible people before?
Just what creates stories, what creates people in those stories, and how do writers reach for that knowledge, needed to shape any story they choose to tell?
Turns out I was talking to invisible people all along. I had been creating stories in my head long before I started writing them down.

You see… I had dolls.

writers and their dolls
                              Where do stories come from?

I remember them, clearly – all of them. There were the pretty ones – a couple of blondes and my favorite, the little black-haired one with cute bangs and eyes that opened and closed and eyelashes to die for and a curious half-smile painted on her rosebud mouth. These were real dolls, maybe a foot or two in height, no silly poseable Barbies with wasp waists but REAL dolls, to me real “people” with names and stories each her own.
There were also the other kind, the odd kind – I had a rubber Pagliacci character (a clown with a pointed hat with a pompom, all in a single piece of rubbery material) and I had my bears.
I had the Barbie tribe, later, too – I had several, but again, my mostest favorite was not the classic Bland Barbie Blondie but instead a fairly rare Amerind-looking specimen with this long silky black hair that fell down to her (relatively natural, proportion-wise) waist, a Pocahontas type whose origins were obviously far from mine – distant, exotic, full of stories of her own.
I had an entire collection of other dolls, ones I didn’t “play” with, but which stood as mute witnesses to my life and the way it was unfolding – they were dolls wearing national costumes of many different countries, places where I’d been or my Dad went and brought me back a National Doll. I had a little blonde Dutch girl with carved wooden clogs. I had an American Indian woman with a baby board and a tiny bronze baby on her back. I had a flamenco dancer in scarlet flounces. I had an Austrian girl in a dirndl with two fat blonde plaits wrapped around her head.
They are all gone now. They vanished somewhere along the way in our many moves from home to home, from continent to continent.
But I played with dolls until quite late – probably later than most girls would admit to doing so,  very probably much after some of the more precocious members of my gender were out with real live boyfriends.
For me, part of the joy of it all was the stories I got to tell. I was writing even when I wasn’t writing, the stories came to nest in my head and all of these creatures just happened to be stiff and plastic and porcelain and rubber and plush and inanimate only when I happened to be DIRECTLY looking at them. When I put them away, they would wake up and live the secret lives that dolls live inside of toy boxes and the backs of wardrobes.
In an episode of the tv show “Castle”, the eponymous title character was  “acting out” a scene between a Barbie doll and a plastic dinosaur, complete with dialogue spoken in “character voice” as the two doll figures interact.
His mother walks into the room. “Playing with dolls?!” she asks, with a degree of incredulity.
And Castle, the writer, the creative mind, puts his avatars down hastily and corrects her. “ACTION figures,” he says.
Somehow, dolls are bad, you see. Dolls are what little children play with. Dolls have no role in even an older girl’s life, let alone an adult man’s. But hey, action figures now, they’re…
Oh, I don’t know. There’s a lot of baggage here. Dolls can be anything from pretty-pretty-cute to downright scary and menacing (Chucky, anyone…?) Dolls can have exquisitely detailed features, or they can be completely faceless ragdolls, or they can lack bits of faces (like noses, like mouths…) and I don’t know which could be construed to be potentially scarier, really, the kind that look like they could just draw breath and walk and be as alive as you or I – or the kind that are forever alien by simply missing the signals that let us interpret human thought and emotion on a human face.

Dolls are so much more than ‘action figures’

But whatever they are or do or represent, dolls are – have always been – so much more than “action figures” and they so don’t need the rationalization or justification of that defensive terminology.
Being caught playing with dolls hardly disqualifies you from being a grown-up, and even if it did, what of it? Sometimes it is just fine to be a child, to let a child’s unfettered and unfiltered mind loose in a story and see what comes out of it all in the end.
I’ve been in classroom situations where I’ve given kids as young as 11 or 12 writing exercises to do – and the sheer unbelievable and exuberant gush of potent creativity that comes out of this, the juxtapositions and connections that an adult mind would never have made because they were too unlikely, the incredible leaps of faith of and imagination – these are the products of minds which are free to tell and to explore the stories that our kind has evolved to tell, to listen to, to crave.
And sometimes it takes a doll.
I miss mine, now, today, with a sudden and terrible fury. My little black-haired girl with the long lashes and her gingham apron and the white plastic shoes on her broad plastic feet. My Pocahontas (and I had her, and dreamed her dreams, long before she became the poster girl for Disney, and I BET mine had the more glorious adventures). All of my little national-costume dolls, my little clog-footed Dutch milkmaid and my regal Spanish dancer that was my pride and joy.
I wonder if they were given away, if some other little girl’s worlds were shaped by these tangible incarnations of my own past existence as a child. I wonder, and I have to hope. And somewhere out there, at the back of some wardrobe, they may be sleeping it off, all of their adventures, waiting for the hour in which they wake again, and walk, and touch the place from which the stories come, and give the stories their own faces.
If you write… when did you start? How did you start? Did dolls help you – did they help you give shape to a character in your mind, did they provide you with ‘props’ which you could use to let a story coalesce around them…?
Do you hear your own voices?


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