Discount unrealities, free to all takers


For the last few days I’ve been wrangling with a spontaneous minifiction project – to write invented past lives for strangers on the internet. Let’s be clear: the whole thing is a splurge of nonsense, I claim nothing and I ask nothing for these the wee snippets of life I send (or sent; have I finished now?) The demand was huge. More than I could cope with. On twitter and elsewhere.


I wrote to one woman, saying she was the first European chef to cook tomatoes, in Florence, for one of the Medicis. Another I informed used to be a reindeer herder, someone else fought in the Battle of Salamis, or rather rowed an Athenian boat. One person was Mary Slessor, on our Scottish money. Here are some others:


@evn_johnston No one before you had thought to eat a sea urchin, but there you went, disgustingly brave, on the shores of the Irish Sea.


@JacquiWine In Tashkent you sat in your vendor’s stall all day, resisting the urge to poke holes in the displays of spices.


@MartyBallz It was your job to clean the floors after the Flemish master fencing school had run through its newest members.


@LynseyMay Your axe bit the trees of Newfoundland for 40 years. You lived with your wife, loved the forest you killed better.


Something about the idea, however clear it was a fiction, touched a lot of people. Someone requested that they had been a dolphin in their past life. I’m not sure why. I think dolphins are the unhinged murderers of the sea.  Other people thanked me, to varying degrees of profuseness, in messages online.


I tried to be kind, even sentimental, with my ‘readings’, when my general urge was to say, you worked in a salt mine, you died when salt fell on you.  The great mass of lives in the past were really hard. But I had come quite quickly to understand that what I said, however fictional, felt in some way real to a lot of the requesters.


You might say it’s a form of delusion. But that’s not quite it, not here. People knew it was play, I think. It comes down to this ability we have to hold in our head an untrue notion that we pretend to ourselves is real, even as we know we are playing a game with ourselves. Hold on to that for a second, the magnitude of this.


It’s how we can read a poem in the voice of the narrator. It’s how we can dissolve our ‘I’ into texts, even if only the toe-tip of ‘I’. We can resist the pack of lies we are having a grand old time reading, be it literary fiction (lies) or a blockbuster thriller (lies again, more lies). We can hate-read a celebrity cookbook and still taste the flavours in our mouth as we follow black marks on the page. It’s a pretty basic thing associated with reading, but it still gets to me, every time. The wonder and magic of this act. It’s like the simple fact that water freezes from the top down; if it didn’t, we might not have life on earth.


Think about the Earth floating in space, a tiny blue ball, spinning awfy quick. Life is short and sometimes hard, and sometimes we die without destiny, white cards cast on the table. How much does even the most rational (I do not say cynical) of us live in fiction every day?


On that point, if you’d like a fake past life, I’m happy to supply one, free, bogus, and probably as I say kind-hearted: wheresthebread[@]


1 Comment

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One response to “Discount unrealities, free to all takers

  1. Fabulous, Helen. I love this idea!

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