Dorothy Cannell: I came home from school one afternoon when I was six and told my mother our class was having a play. It was Red Riding Hood and I had been chosen to play her. The result was delightful, she was thrilled. When father came home from work she told him the exciting news and I basked in the lovely glow of their approval. But not for long. There was no play, and had there been, it was highly unlikely I would have been chosen for the lead.
I was mousy quiet and the teacher couldn’t have thought I’d have the confidence to carry it off. Unfortunately the school did frequently put on plays; the performances held on the gym stage before an audience of parents. During the coming days my mother continued in her delight, wanting to know when it would happen and if she should make my costume. Sickening panic set in. I was terrified that she might meet my teacher on the street, the school was very close to where we lived, and bring up the subject. I would wake in the night with my heart pounding. It never occurred to me to confess. I wasn’t afraid that parents would be angry with me; what I couldn’t bear was their disappointment.
I can’t blame my need to draw attention to myself and to feel important, on being a middle child lost in the mix of four. I got every bit as much love as the others. Eventually my mother talked less about my starring role, and finally when she did bring it up I told her the play had been cancelled. My long nightmare was over in the sense that the threat of exposure was lifted, but the memory of my dreadful lie haunted me throughout my childhood. Obviously it didn’t stop me from telling others of the more mundane sort – no, I wasn’t the one who’d taken a slice of cake in the cupboard, started the argument with my sisters, or knocked the coats off the hall tree. But never again did I tell a lie for the reason of making myself important.
The need, however, to reinvent myself into someone more interesting, exciting and enviable, remained rather than the nonentity I was at school. And so I concocted an inner life, one where I was possessed of fabulous talents – the ability to do sixteen perfect cartwheels in a circle and ride bareback on a horse were favorites. In real life I was horrible at anything athletic; but in one of my alternative worlds I had been brought up in a circus and made to leave it because my parents wanted me to have a normal upbringing. In another I was a budding ballerina forced to practice in secret because my father couldn’t bear to see me dance. This was because my mother, a great dancer, had died from a fall (something slippery on the stage) when I was a baby and he was still wracked by grief and unable to deal with my having inherited her gift. I was also the head of the school diving team, able to leap from the high diving board and enter arched gracefully into the water without causing a ripple and win a trophy long held by a rival school.
None of the inventions were fully mine. They were culled from books I read. What I did was enlarge upon them, weave them into other events, because I never wanted to leave any of my secret worlds behind. Gradually, it wasn’t all about the invented ‘me’. The other people who’d made their way in grew in interest, and without knowing it was happening dialogue was there and plots formed.
People often ask me, as they do others in fields, what made me a writer? There are many reasons. My father was an avid reader and my mother a story teller, but as I think about it now I’m sure that the Red Riding Hood lie was a huge impetus. Make it up, but don’t pretend it’s real. Any yet, isn’t fiction a form of truth when written from the deepest part of who we are?