22 March, 2016

Letter to My Second Son

When my first boy, Digory, was six weeks old, I wrote him a letter about how his life is a book that only he can write. It's taken me a bit longer to get round to writing a letter to my second son, Wilfred, but here it is...

Our dearest Wilfred,

What story are you telling today? I’m not asking what narrative you intend to follow for the rest of your life – nothing so grand; I’m only asking what story are you telling now, today, this minute? Your life is a book, but in every book there are chapters, and each chapter is made up of paragraphs. Each paragraph is full of sentences which in turn are built one word at a time. Big words. Beautiful words. The mundane and the astonishing. Every story is made up of a million smaller stories; each life made up of years and days and minutes. So, what story are you telling today?

Storytelling is a funny thing, Wilfy. It’s not all about fantastic plots and spectacular twists. Sometimes it’s not even what you’re telling; it’s how you’re telling it. There are some people who never travel more than five miles from the place they were born, but who lead lives that tell beautiful stories. There are some people who travel the world and lead a thousand lives in one lifespan, but they never find a story worth telling. You see, the stories we tell are sometimes – perhaps often – only loosely related to the facts our lives are built on. No good book is a bland list of events in chronological order. No good life is either.

Sometimes this mismatch between the stuff that happens to us and the stories we tell about that stuff is a good thing. The most wonderful quotation in literature is from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden. What is that if it isn’t storytelling? To be able to look at disaster, or disappointment, or just the humdrum rise and fall of an ordinary sort of life and to see a garden within it, is a gift. If I could give you one thing, Wilfred, it would be that ability to take hold of your life – big and full of adventure, or small and simple – and tell a story with it that is full of colour and growth and joy; to see flowers in bare earth. I can’t, of course. It’s something only you can learn. Some people never see flowers, even when walking in Eden.

This mismatch can be a difficult thing too. You see, we can’t just be storytellers, we must also be storylisteners. Some people will listen to the stories you tell and they will hear something you never meant them to hear – they will twist your story and make it into something new, a story of their own. You will tell them about an achievement you are proud of, and they will think you are telling a story about their own under-achievement; you will tell a story of finding the love of your life, and they will turn it into a story about their own loneliness. You can’t help this, Wilfy. Be kind, be honest, and don’t worry about it too much. 

There will be times however, when you will tell ugly stories on purpose. You’ll apologise without sincerity, or you will disguise a criticism within a compliment, knowing it will wound. I know you will, because we all do it sometimes. We all forget that we are not only the heroes of our own stories, but characters in other people’s stories too. Storytellers are marvellous, beautiful, hopeful things. Storytellers are cruel. We are all storytellers. Our only hope is to keep telling the marvellous, beautiful, hopeful stories until they drown out any cruel stories within us.

That’s the secret, you see. You can’t always control the events that happen in your life, but you can choose the stories you tell about them. At the end of your life – may it be long and happy – you will head off to start the next great story, and you will leave behind people who know you. And those people will tell stories about you. What tales do you want them to tell? Because they will repeat the tales you told them during your lifetime. If you want them to tell stories of a kind-hearted man, then you must be kind-hearted. If you want them to tell tales of a man who loved beyond measure, then love people beyond measure. It’s so simple. Isn’t that wonderful? This thing we call life is actually kind of simple at the heart of it. Stop and ask yourself, what story am I telling today (this minute, in this conversation) and is it the story I want to be telling. If it isn’t a story you want to be remembered for telling, tell a different one. That is all.

The stories you’ve been telling us over these first six months of your life are simple ones: the joy of a familiar face leaning over your cot in the morning; the anguish of having that Lego brick you finally got your hands on taken away from you again before you could swallow it. As a character in my story you have become indispensible, intricately wound up in my own tale. You have brought sunshine and you have brought something indefinable I never knew I was missing. I have so many wishes and dreams for your life. I want every story you tell to be a happy one. And I know that can’t happen. The chapters of your life are not mine for writing. Daddy and I can only play our part, as characters in your story, and hope that we give you the right words to become the storyteller you want to be.

Be kind, Wilfred. If nothing else, be kind. Love greatly. Love without fearing the consequences of loving. Be bold in letting people love you. Tell the stories you want to tell. Tell the stories you think the world needs to hear. Listen carefully. Laugh freely. See flowers.

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