Once upon a time, when I was in about second grade, my almost-best-friend borrowed a record from her older brother’s room and I heard David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” for the first time. In the song, Major Tom, an astronaut, leaves his space capsule, which then takes off for Earth without him, stranding him in space. Ground Control knows something has gone wrong, but communication is failing. And the media wants to know Major Tom’s consumer preferences and other trivialities. Major Tom floats in space, musing on the appearance of the stars.
That song scared the tar out of me. I immediately decided there was no way I would ever venture into space. I wouldn’t even watch Star Trek because it was set in space and space was a big “no!” for me.
Just a few years later, I came across a re-run of a televised music festival. And there was that song! And there was David Bowie! Seeing him perform the song got me to pay attention not just to “what” but also to “how” in the song.
I realized that Major Tom being stranded is space is what happens, but what the song is about is Major Tom being cut off and alienated from the whole world.
Hey, I thought, I’ve felt that way! I’ve felt like I don’t belong in my family, like I don’t fit in anywhere at school, that none of my friends get me. He gets it! This extraordinary English man, old enough to be my father, has felt something that I have felt. Against all appearances to the contrary, he and I have something in common.
And I know this because he told a story.
From that moment, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write stories that somehow would ring true enough that a reader, even one apparently very different from me, would say, “She gets it.”
David Bowie was never an astronaut. I doubt he researched all the ways a space mission from the Earth to the moon could go wrong. What’s important in the Major Tom story is the universal feeling of alienation, of watching life go on without our participation in it, of not being heard.
Some of those same feelings are central to the Harry Potter series of books. Millions of people have read those books, and of the millions, a good proportion are well above school age – and were when the first book in the series was first published.
J. K. Rowling was never an adolescent boy.
And yet, in telling the story of Harry Potter – and Hermione and Ron and Dumbledore and all the rest of the Hogwarts universe – she touched people, millions of people, so deeply that grown adults can tell you what house they feel they belong to (Ravenclaw) or hold strong opinions on such matters as house elf rights. There’s clearly more to the story than mere escapism.
Here’s the part where I could launch into an exposition of Jung’s archetypes and the collective unconscious and what makes a story work across all boundaries – geographic, ethnic/racial, gender, time.
But instead I’ll say: Write the story. Do your research if research is required. Make up the whole thing, but don’t lie. Write with your heart and soul, edit with your head and a thick skin. If it’s real, write it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.