The Formative Power of Stories

There’s a wonderful quote by Meg Ryan’s character in the movie You’ve Got Mail : “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

I’ve given that quote a lot of thought over the past few years, largely because I have found it to be so true in my own life. There are many books that I have loved as an adult, and some of them have had considerable impact on me, either as a person or as a writer. Yet nothing I have read as an adult has shaped me as profoundly as the stories that formed the backdrop of my childhood.

One of the things I’ve come to realize is that every single theme that resonates with me as both a reader and a writer is something that I was exposed to early in life through a book or books I loved. But even more, these stories have shaped who I am as a whole and how I perceive the world around me.

For example, I was four or five years old when my mother read Amy’s Eyes to me, a beautiful and surprisingly complex children’s novel that is now out of print. In the character of the Bad Sister, I encountered for the first time a person who had been forced to hide her identity, and who struggled powerfully between remaining true to herself or being consumed by the mask she wore.

One scene in particular, in which the Bad Sister catches her reflection in a mirror and must confront her fractured identity head-on, stayed with me from that first reading until I rediscovered the book in my teens. By that time, the concepts of duality and the struggle for identity were already firmly entrenched in my mind–even though I was unaware of it then, those themes were present to some degree in every piece of fiction I had written (and still are, to tell the truth).

Of course, there were many other stories that influenced me: a long line of spies, superheroes, and fugitive princesses who dealt with conflicting personas in the pages of my favorite books. But it all began with a single unforgettable scene that lived on in my imagination with such power and vividity that it became part of my artistic identity forever.

It became part of me on another, more fundamental level as well. All throughout elementary and middle school, when I was incessantly bullied for nothing more than being myself, I fought to keep my own identity intact. But I remembered how the Bad Sister became so lost that she no longer recognized her own reflection, and yet at the end of the book she was able to reclaim her true self.

That is what I clung to all those years, what gave me the strength to hold onto the very identity that was under daily assault from my peers–and what gave me the certainty that the struggle would be worth it in the end. I never looked in the mirror and saw a stranger staring back at me, but I read and wrote stories about women who did, and it saved me. And like all the stories I loved as a child, it continues to save me still.

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