People have been sending me stories lately; lots and lots of them. I'm a story magnet. This isn't some random cosmic aberration, it's because I'm helping to run a short story competition on behalf of the Steyning Festival and the West Sussex Writers. As the final day for entries approached, I received more and more stories every day; a gush of stories, a torrent of stories. They arrived faster than I could process them.
My role is to be all knowing. I’m trying not to let the power go to my head. I take the stories, make sure they fit the rules and then I anonymise them, stripping them from their creator so the only tenuous link is a row of details on my master spreadsheet. Then I batch them up and send them to the judges. It’s been a humbling experience. I’m lucky enough to have won a few competitions like this in the past. So running this is a bit poacher turned gamekeeper. Feeling the collective weight of words and recalling that on a few occasions I’ve managed to own the last story standing, has made me proud and grateful all over again. But more than that, it’s made me think again on what a deeply rooted need there is in so many people to create, shape and share stories.
The competition is limited to Sussex or those who have lived in Sussex. We made a concerted effort to contact writing groups all across the old county. The stories come to me and I make sure that they meet the Sussex rule. I log the postcodes and get a kick from seeing how far and wide are their origins. I wonder how many stories were already written and waiting for just such an opportunity, or how many sat only in dusty corners of the authors’ minds, tugged into sentences and paragraphs by our flyers and Facebook posts.
If I look past the mechanics of the administration, what is my role? It feels like a harvest, as if the early stories from the autumn were picked like ripe sloes from the Downs, or that I’ve set nets across the Arun and the Adur and saved tales from the current, that the Channel tides have carried them in bottles from Hastings, Seaford and the Witterings to collect at the high-water mark in Worthing. It’s a bit far-fetched, I know, but I like these images more than just the next story popping into my inbox. Imagination deserves to be wrapped in imagination.
I could search Google and find out theories on the human need to tell stories, but sometimes it’s good to use your own mind. The thought that stuck with me is that creativity is to the mind as physical play is to the body. Our physical selves, at least our younger ones, need to run in the playground, on the rugby pitch or tennis court. Our minds need to play too, to roam a little more freely, to create what might have been or recreate what was.
Only one story can win, of course, but I believe that writing is cathartic even if a story is never shared. Better if they are though. Better to profer them up to the story harvesters, whether they are the likes of me, the judges, workgroups, friends, loved ones. A story is only a story if it's told.