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Memories of Childhood Storytelling, Part Two
The Nine-Year-Running Stuffed Animal Game, As A Story
Last week, I told about how, throughout our childhoods, my sister and I constructed an elaborate long-running narrative with our stuffed animals. It started somewhere around when I was nine and she was five, and continued until I was eighteen and she was fourteen. And, I didn't realize till later how unusual it was.
This's the second of a two-part series; last week, I talked about how we told the story and how it kept continuing; here, I'll analyze it as a story and talk about how it influenced us.
Of course, this's from my point of view, but my sister - who goes by the alias "Windward" these days online - has helped me brainstorm and edit these posts.
The story we told was very episodic. We were playing the game some almost every day, but we weren't thinking of it as adding another chapter to one single story. We were thinking of it as a new incident in the game; a new story in its own right. Absent interruptions (say, for dinner or schoolwork), we'd probably keep playing until the action wound down to a good stopping point or else bring it to a stopping point. Even in the final arc with the months-long Last Snake War (again, that was very unusual in terms of being a months-long arc), there were small stopping points in the middle, like if the tale were being told through a collection of short stories or a TV miniseries.
Aside from this episodic pacing, things weren't consciously paced. We didn't try to have multiple story threads coming to a climax at the same time or echoing each other. We didn't try to decide on major longrunning themes either, though they sometimes happened (either subconsciously or because of our interests that year.) In that way, it'd wouldn't make a good story. But then, we were young; most stories by preteens would be at least that bad. Or, you could call it the conventions of the genre of realtime stuffed-animal theater. Like Albert Lord tells in his famous _Singer of Tales_ about oral poetry, when you're telling a story without any possibility of editing, the story has to be different.
All sorts of our interests got reflected in the game, and we freely borrowed from everywhere. Sir Chatterer of the Branch was a proper squirrel-knight from Redwall. George the Monkey was curious and mischievous. Tigger the Tiger loved to bounce. But more often, we grabbed the name and nothing else: Verdi the snake, Wishbone the dog, Jenny the cat, and dozens of Beanie Babies with their official names. (Did I mention I was bad at naming animals?) There were also neighboring rabbit warrens with social structures from Watership Down, flat cats and tribbles, tons of references to Tolkien's Middle-Earth, and references to legends such as the horn of a unicorn being able to heal injuries which it was assumed everyone knows.
This never really turned into fanfic - just echoes. We didn't need to consciously try to avoid that, because Beanbag City was enough of its own thing by the time it was threatened. When Tigger is enlisted in the Tiger Brigade, he's already far removed from the Hundred-Acre Wood.
On the other hand, you could almost say this was fanfiction of our younger selves. Everything that we could remember of what we'd played through in our younger years was accepted as canon. We used the events there to inspire the characters and to reference as backstory incidents. Even the one-off throwaway "Constellation Club" where I assembled animals to align with as many constellations as possible survived in that Weenie the Dachshund gained the alternate name of "Cepheus." You could say that we were trying to make sense of the earlier games and deepen them, like a fanfic might a mediocre original work.
That really helped our games. On the one hand, there was no one moment where we would've started anew from ground zero, no real breaking point in the organic development. Even if we'd thought of that, there was always some sort of plot going on where we wanted to see what came next. And more than that, we liked our existing characters and didn't want to lose them! After all, those were the big reasons we kept playing the game. On the other hand, if we had tried to start anew, we wouldn't have been able to spin a hundred new characters for all our stuffed animals, let alone the setting details. Our own younger childhoods gave us that backstory and characters for us to develop without having to take time out to actually establish and develop them.
And then, we had a large ensemble cast. I'm looking right now at the Beanbag City voter registry from the last election we had - a computer file; I'd long since written a computerized voting system for them - and out of the 99 voters there, I can remember every one of the characters. Not all of them were ever major characters, but all of them had a clear personality, and by the end of our childhood most were multidimensional.
Most of the animals' personalities gradually developed over time. Some basics were there from as early as I can, like Walter Dalmation and Henry and George. But they added on new elements over time, like George turning to subtler mischief as I grew older or Tigger joining Stripes and some others in the "Tiger Brigade." Also, of course, new animals would come (as our parents bought us new stuffed animals) with new personalities. Sometimes this would work great, like timid Tartan; other times, it failed, like Professor Strigidae Megascops the bloviating. It probably isn't a coincidence that Tartan was Windward's and Strigidae was mine; Windward was - and still is - better at making new personable characters than I am.
The animals' personalities were usually informed, but not determined, by what type of animal they were. I think the links were best with the cats and the dogs, because - even though we didn't have any real pets except gerbils and a guinea pig - we could see real cats and dogs and model Silky and Prance and Henry and Walter after them in interesting ways. But we'd only seen bears at the zoo and elephants at the fair. Other times, we modeled them after legends - unicorns and dragons, of course, but also the wise owl and mischievous monkey and timid hamster. Others - like Stripes and Ambrose Prickles the hedgehog - were totally made up out of whole cloth. Looking back, I think it would've been fun to use the legends about bears too, but I don't think I knew about them back then. And then, I don't think I was consciously thinking of this until Professor Strigidae showed up very late in the game and I decided to give him a comic take on the stereotypical wise-owl personality. Until then, the question was just what sort of characters were natural or would bounce interestingly off the town dynamics.
Looking back, I think it did matter more than I thought that the characters of Beanbag City were animals. It wasn't just that their species often informed their characters, but also - as has been said about Wind in the Willows - it freed them from human assumptions of maturity. Tartan or George or Silky could act childish without anyone calling them childish or treating them like children. Were they adults? Presumably; at least, they were treated as independent and taken seriously when they were acting seriously. But it wasn't a background assumption that they should be acting maturely. There were a few puppies in Beanbag City, and Amber the dog had taken it on herself to ride herd on them sometimes, but even the puppies were on the voters' roll. There wasn't any social separation between childhood and adulthood. The presumptions of human society didn't carry over.
The death of Beanbag City was gradual and then all at once. It kept going strong - though not as strong as before - after I went away in eleventh grade to "classroom school" (as I'd called it). We'd still play through some events every week or so, the elections happened like clockwork every six months, and I even wrote a new voting program thanks to my AP Comp Sci class teaching me Java. Windward was making new friends too, and she finally got a real dog to go along with all the stuffed dogs, but she was also still very interested. I don't think I really felt embarrassed about it at all, even as a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old. I didn't mention it to any of my friends, but then it'd never come up.
(Also, I was starting to try to write novels, and the game got some cross-pollination from them; Strigidae Megascops the owl was explicitly a professor at a university from one of my unfinished novels.)
The game started gaining more ongoing arcs around then. The Last Snake War lasted for several months, as - after Beanbag City pushed out yet another snake invasion in alliance with the Roman Rabbits - the alliance (now also including the Hill Foxes) pushed forward in an unprecedented strike to defeat the snakes once and for all. After several months and final victory... well, there was a disagreement on how to handle the now-liberated "Marsh Commonwealths" (as they were called). It didn't help that the Roman Rabbits were Radical Representatives and militant vegetarians, who'd held a grudge against Beanbag City for years. I think because of their greater organization, they were mostly getting their way... but we didn't quite play out the end of that storyline.
The death of Beanbag City was gradual and then all at once. During my senior year while I was hearing back from colleges, the game fell by the wayside. Life was getting busy. And the Roman Rabbits and snake arcs were done, and the Southerlands arc was about to start a big quest/war. By this time, we'd long since set Beanbag City definitely in a different universe from the Southerlands. Golden Eagle Airways (invented when I was a kid) had shut down its interworld routes, but you could still ride dragon-back through the Gates, a lot of the animals did that to help in the war, and I felt like I really should plan the war but between classes and college applications I didn't get around to it...
And when it came time for the election in the summer after I'd graduated high school, I realized that very little had actually happened since the last election. So we held one more election, chose Mindy as the last Mayor of Beanbag City, and set the town aside as I headed off to college. What happened after, we never told.
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Beanbag City hasn't ever had a successful direct afterlife, but it's definitely helped us. We both got into D&D - Windward much more than me - which only made us realize afterwards that's essentially what the "talking games" had been. We also both got into fiction writing, which is the other part of what it had been. There was one novel we coauthored, but after the first draft it stalled due to disputes on how to revise it. (Revisions are, of course, something we never did in Beanbag City. Nothing except maybe Silky's wedding was retconned; nothing was revised.)
More directly, Dad had been urging us for a while ever since the height of Beanbag City to write down what happened. He'd overheard enough of it; Windward and I happily shared what was going on with the stuffed animals whenever our parents asked and often when they didn't. It would make a good story, he said. He was right. Unfortunately, we never really did write it down. Years later - toward the end of college or after - I tried several times to write a book about Beanbag City, or about Dragonquest, but by then Windward and I didn't quite remember all of it. I got a few outlines together and suggested to Windward that we co-write it, but we couldn't get the right tone. I'm still convinced there's some way it could work, and while writing these posts I got the urge to try again. But I haven't found it yet.
Just last year, I started lifting some of the plot arcs and characters out of Beanbag City into a new world for a different novel, which actually does involve talking animals as well as some humans. That hasn't gone anywhere yet - I set it down to start this blog - but I'm still hoping it might.
I think the biggest way Beanbag City has helped me with my fiction writing is just getting me in the habit of telling stories. After all, for years, I was spinning some incidents of a story every day - and the same story, at that. Now, I keep making up stories in my head every week if not every day. Writing them is harder than making them up, of course. In part, I think that's because of the permanency and specificity of words on the page, as opposed to my saying a line orally while moving a stuffed rabbit across the room. Tone and pacing were things I never really worried about then. But still, being so used to telling stories is an important part. I can outline sequences of events quite fine, especially when given characters and not worrying about simultaneous interacting arcs.
Windward and I both write fanfiction now, I think because we're both used to playing in a world we aren't fully making up and continuing stories from long ago. After all, the characters in Beanbag City were - you could say - inherited from our past selves many years ago.
Making up characters now is harder. On the one hand, it wasn't that often in Beanbag City that I spun together a whole new character at once. Windward got new stuffed animals more often than I did, and even so, hers had richer personalities. On the other hand, like I said above, it really did matter to their characters in a lot of ways that they were animals not humans. Human characters carry a lot of background assumptions with them that weren't present in Beanbag City... and even if I decided to write about talking animals, talking animal stories carry assumptions of their own for the readers. That works great in my most recent attempted novel, but not everywhere.
Also, it mattered to be playing the game with someone. There were parts of the story Windward directed better than me - unfortunately, they're mostly the parts she can still recount better than me. Also, of course, having an audience mattered. We motivated each other to keep the story coherent and to keep going.
At the time, as a kid, I didn't have the slightest idea a long-running game like this was unusual. Kids did it in books occasionally, after all. But now, when I hear my young cousins or my friends' children talking about their stuffed animals, I can't help thinking they're losing out on something somehow.
Just last year, while visiting our parents, Windward and I went through some of our childhood things we'd still left there - including the stuffed animals. It was melancholy to see them sitting in the bin where they'd been left for years and remember each of their personalities. Finally, we decided to give them to some friends with kids living nearby. I don't know what level of stories Ringo and Star will get into with our friends' kids, but at least another generation will have the chance to tell stories like this.