Today (Sunday), my older daughter was graduated from high school. It has been an emotional weekend, full of celebration, of wistful remembrance, of joyful anticipation of adventures and journeys to come.
Throughout the various events, as I have watched my child take these first decisive steps into adulthood, even as she still smiles at me with a face that doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the past eighteen years, I have found myself thinking about many things, most of them having nothing at all to do with writing. But I have given a good deal of thought to the notion of narrative, to the ways in which we humans seek to shape a coherent story out of events and circumstances and milestones that do not necessarily lend themselves to a coherent progression of “plot points.”
It seems to me that we do this at moments like these. A rite of passage — a birth, a tenth birthday, a first driver’s license, a graduation, a marriage, another birth — is rarely viewed as an isolated moment in one’s life. Rather, it is part of a continuing progression, an unfolding tale. Even the language we use to speak of such things reaches for the expression of life as epic. We turn a page, we begin a new chapter. There is comfort in narrative, reassurance in the idea that life is something more than random unrelated events strung together over the years.
We do something similar when confronted by tragedy. We want to understand why two young men, immigrants to our country, would plant bombs to kill and maim strangers on a day of friendly competition and patriotic expression. We seek a narrative in their lives that can help us grasp the incomprehensible, that perhaps can impose order and clarity on chaos and grief and horror. And so we turn something inherently irrational into part of a logical progression. As I say, there is comfort in narrative; perhaps there is healing to be found in a story well told, even if that story leads to terror.
The problem is, narrative is an elusive and at times artificial construct. To turn on its head the old Tom Clancy quote about fiction and reality, fiction makes sense because we create events to fulfill a preordained narrative; reality has to have narrative imposed upon it. Otherwise it is incoherent, untamed, frightening.
And so my daughter graduates from high school. In the fall she will head off to NYU and begin her college education. And a decade from now, perhaps as she is marrying someone she will meet there, or beginning a career that will grow out of the intellectual awakening she will no doubt experience during her college years, it will seem as though she was destined to go from rural Tennessee to New York City. It will seem that the combination of college application choices and outcomes and final matriculation decisions all pointed her to this one fated path. That is a convenient and satisfying narrative. More, there will almost certainly be threads and connections and coincidences that reinforce the idea of predetermination. I can tell you, though, that while we have been in the midst of the process it has felt pretty random. At times, disturbingly so.
This is a post about life as much as it is about writing. I look toward my daughter’s future and I see amazing possibilities; I envy her the adventures she will have; a small part of me — the protective father — harbors some trepidation for the setbacks she will suffer, and for the unspoken dangers inherent in a life well-lived. This last, though, I try to conceal, from her and from myself. Most of all, I hope that her life will lend itself to the narrative we want to impose upon it. My life has seemed a well-structured story, in large part because I have found the joys of a wonderful marriage, a loving family, a fulfilling career. The narrative “works.” I hope hers will as well.
Thinking for a moment as a writer, rather than as a father, I realize that the need to impose narrative on life can be mirrored in our creative attempts to shape plot points into a satisfying story. Because while I would like for my daughter’s joys and successes to have that sense of coherence that sometimes comes with a happy life, I don’t want my characters’ successes to feel that way. This, I suppose, is the paradox of narrative, of fiction, of reality. Returning to Clancy’s quote once again, I agree that fiction has to make sense. But it has to make sense without feeling predetermined. Our job as writers is not merely to shape a story that holds together, but also to give it that sense of randomness, of pandemonium that we associate with “real life.” When our readers reach the end of our stories or books, they can look back and say “Yes, of course. It had to unfold that way.” But when they’re in the middle of them, each new twist and turn should be a revelation.
Fiction and real life. I believe that those of us who live with one foot firmly planted in each have a wondrous opportunity to explore the deeper meaning of what it is to love and to hurt, to celebrate and to grieve, to discover and to experience. And so today, with my heart so full it feels constantly on the brink of overflowing, I wish all of you lives that lend themselves to narrative, and stories that capture the amazing unpredictability of life.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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