Saturday, June 16, 2018

History and the illusion of inevitability

I've been thinking about historical fiction and nonfiction. From a plotting perspective, they're unusual in that we usually know how the story ends. We know how World War II came out, what happened to the Hindenburg, and when Vesuvius erupted. The writer's challenge is to create tension in the face of a known ending. Sometimes writers choose historical mysteries for that reason, or historical figures about whom very little is known, so they can create a world from plausible conjecture. Sometimes they create tension around the fate of individual fictional characters--for example, we may know how and when a war ended, but we don't know whether the characters we've been following will survive it.

The inevitability of known outcomes is also tough to keep out of the characters' minds. When we readers and writers know how things come out, it's tempting to think the characters should know it, too. But when I look at the world today, I have no idea how things will go. Many historical events only look inevitable in hindsight, and I think that sense of uncertainty, that sense that anything could happen, is crucial if difficult to capture.

Friday, June 8, 2018

After dreams come true

"I had imagined my dreams coming true, but not what happened after that."--Melissa Febos, "Home," in Good-bye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

This sentence really jumped out at me, because I've spent the past couple of years in the "after that." I think most writers expect that once we publish books, we will keep on and on. Even if we've said, pre-publication, that we would be thrilled just to publish once, just this one book, we know deep down that every step we climb shows us more steps ahead, new floors we want to reach. We reach one goal only to set another.

And sometimes we find that the new goal isn't attainable. Or isn't what we want anymore. Life is full of curveballs, diversions, setbacks. 

It's also full of new opportunities. 

We need not follow every single road to the end. Even if we once saw that highway stretching out clear and straight before us. There may be a side road beckoning, a twisty road that's hard to see the end of, but the sunlight and the flowers lining it are tempting.

We don't always know what's coming, but that may be part of the fun.