Castles Made of Sand

Today I built a sand castle. Having a beach full of sand to play with proved to be quite a distraction from writing and from the book I was reading. (Lanark, which I am really enjoying again after getting distracted from it by general work related business.) I was idly digging one hand in the sand whilst reading, the next thing I knew I had made a small tower. Two hours later I had a whole complex of towers, moats, defensive walls and pebble battlements. Yes, I know.

Sand castle construction has some basic principles. You dig a hole, you get a mound. The material from the hole has to go somewhere after all. Holes and mounds, the two basic building blocks of the sand castle. Extend the whole and you get a trench and a wall. Dig the trench in a circle and you have a moat. Pile a mound higher and you get a tower. Walls and trenches, moats and towers. Intermediate sand castling. Start combining these elements together and you are in advanced castling territory.

The thing about sand castles is that you can start building them without any training or study. A six year old can learn most of what there is to know about sand castles in a single afternoon of play. Sand castles are the outcome of unlimited sand, imagination and a playful spirit.

Much like stories. You do not need lots of learning and study to tell a good story. We tell ourselves and each others stories all the time. And as soon as you start telling a story, you start inventing characters and situations, which quickly become relationships and narratives. The basic building blocks that all stories are made from are as simple to discover as holes and mounds in the sand.

But they are also easy to loose sight of. Imagine if I had gone down to the beach today with the image of Windsor Castle in mind and tried to build it. Or spent seven years studying architecture then tried to apply those principles on the spot. Or worse yet, tried to build a castle that represented the existential nature of the human condition. Argh!! Failue and frustration!!

But that is exactly what we do as writers all the time. Stories can achieve all kinds of sophisticated and abstract outcomes (as too can sand castles). But however sophisticated, all stories are still made from the same basic building blocks, characters and situations, holes and mounds. It’s so easy to lose sight of those basics, and with them lose the imagination and playful spirit that make storytelling possible at all.

The other thing that sand castles and stories have in common is impermanance. Stories last as long as the telling, although the memory of them may linger. Sand castles are gone with the tide, as I am sure mine has by now.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.


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