Human Beings are Curators: Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter
Kate Morton is one of my favorite authors. I anticipate her publishing dates like others wait for the first weekend of college football. She writes big, sweeping narratives that span generations in a family or centuries in a town or, in her latest work, the different residents of a particular house. She weaves characters together with her words, spiraling them to a central event, where we, the readers, finally learn what happened and why everything had to go sideways.
Her latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, is no exception. It’s full of mystery and intrigue and the supernatural. I loved it. I especially loved this passage:
“Human beings are curators. Each polishes his or her favored memories, arranging them in order to create a narrative that pleases. Some events are repaired and buffed for display; others are deemed unworthy and cast aside, shelved below ground in the overflowing storeroom of the mind. There, with any luck, they are promptly forgotten. The process is not dishonest; it is the only way that people can live with themselves and the weight of their experiences.”
I love learning about story — not just stories that I read or hear, but I also love the structure of story and how story shapes so much of who we are as humans. We need narrative to explain life’s circumstances. We need story to help us cope with loss and grief. Story manages to put words to emotions and then make sense to the world around us.
Our memories are unreliable, but our stories that come from those memories make heroes. The ordinary squelching through life becomes an adventure. Telling stories isn’t lying or exaggerating. Telling stories brings beauty from the ashes. Those stories connect us to our past and connect us to our humanity.
I used to be a writing teacher in small towns in Texas, and I would try to tell my students that the best stories are the ones that come from your own life. You can use any part of your life, the more specific, the better. I would inspire them to draw from their own memories. They would turn in stories about a kid growing up in New York City. Sigh.
I would say, “Write about living in a small town. You’ve never lived in New York City.” They would say, “But living in a small town is boring.” And I would say, “To you. Living in a small town is boring to you. But if you write about your own life, the one that you remember with all of its sights and sounds and smells. This is where your life is at its most specific. If you can do that, then, it becomes universal.”
As kids, we dream of living somewhere else, of escaping the drudgery of the every day. But really, the stories that resonate are the stories curated from our own lives, polished by narrative and put on display, using all of the memories that you can, even the hard ones. The hard stories, those life experiences that you want to forget, those are the stories that shine brightest, that resonate most. Dig deep and find them and use them to help others.