This week I finished reading reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which is about an attempt to go back in the past and prevent John Kennedy’s assassination, so I am thinking more than usual of the various events and waypoints in time that bring us to where we are. I’m sure we’ve all played “what if” with our lives. What if my parents have never met? What if I had been born sooner or later than I was? What if I had not met my spouse? What if I had not taken the way home that resulted in someone running into me at a traffic light? It’s a tangled web we weave, and one that can go off in a number of different directions. (Ray Bradbury has a terrific short story about this phenomenon called “A Sound of Thunder.” You can read it at:
I recommend it highly if you haven’t read it.)
There’s a principle called the Butterfly Effect, that says even a small thing (such as a butterfly flapping its wings) can cause large changes (like creating a hurricane). And writers of fiction, at least, seem to agree that in spite of their characters’ best efforts to change things for the better, all in all things may turn out worse. As the little guy with the big ears said on the Kaiser Permanente commercial, “It’s complicated.”
It’s also complicated for writers who try to mirror reality (or an alternate reality). My novel, which is now in revision, had a character die at a certain point. A friend who is a wonderful writer told me that I should not kill the poor fellow off so soon in the interests of several characters’ development. She was right, so I just badly injured him so he was around for a couple of years longer. But–everything is connected to everything else, in fiction as in life, so I had to go through and change every reference afterward to him being dead. It took some doing, but the book is the better for it.
When I was making the changes, I first was thinking, “But this isn’t the way it happened.” Then, of course, I realized that it could happen any way I wanted it, unlike reality. Probably under the influence of King’s book, I was thinking of the steps that led to my having another flat tire last week. I was fixing Becky’s piano lamp and found it needed a new socket. So I took myself off to Rice’s Hardware, one of my favorite places. To avoid traffic, I can go down a couple of streets in my subdivision, cross a semi-main road, go through an alley behind the shopping center, swing around the end and there I am.
As I was coming up to the entrance to the alley, I found it was blocked by a tree company’s truck clearing a tree damaged by Sandy the storm so I couldn’t use my customary entrance. I turned left and got into the alley at the next entrance down. While driving behind the shopping center, I hit an almost invisible pothole and knew instantly I had killed the tire. So, it was off to the tire place to get a new tire. At least the rim wasn’t bent.
And so I thought, what if I had deferred my trip to the hardware store? What if I had gotten out on the main road instead of the alley? What if I had seen the pothole and avoided it? Maybe I could have avoided a ruined tire, but on the other hand, I very well could have had a head-on with a tractor trailer on the main road and had damage much worse than a bad tire. Mark Twain’s story, “The Mysterious Stranger,” is about trying to change life for the better and making it worse. Here’s a link to that story:
So, whether it’s life and reality or a novel, we as people and as writers need to make the best choices we can and then see what happens. Perspective helps; good friends help; practicing faith, hope and love all help. We’re all in this; we’re all in this together; and we’re not in it alone.