Friday, August 5, 2011

TIme is On My Side (In Fiction)

I'm good at writing the last lines in stories. Often, I have the final words figured out long before anything else. I like coming up with the neat ending, the perfect parting shot, the memorable farewell. Those final words are a bit like a punchline and, as someone who spent a few years writing greeting cards, I know the punchline is all important.

One of my favorite greeting cards I ever wrote was intended to be the last line of a story: "I'm glad you broke up with me. I was starting to feel guilty about cheating on you."

Zing! I love that. It's funny, it's bitter and it says so much about the character (or the giver of the card). It's the kind of closure one never gets in real life-- which maybe is why I'm a fiction writer.

I'm trying to recall moments in my life that offered the kind of real and final closure that fiction so often provides. I can't think of many. All the moments of closure I've experienced have been the result of big moves or death or having the circumstances take the choice out of my hands entirely. In the case of death, the closure was with my mother-- a relationship that was destined to never have any sort of real closure as long as we were both alive. And death is a rather unsatisfactory form of closure-- it takes away the options. There is no argument to fight, no tearful reunion, no epiphany to be had-- even when it brings a sense of guilty relief, death is a hollow, empty kind of closure.

For that matter, time itself is a kind of unsatisfactory closure. The failure to make up my mind about something often results in the decision being made for me. I thought I would be childless because I couldn't commit to the idea of having children. At almost 41, I decided to give it a whirl-- and here I am, three years later, weeks away from having my second baby. According to statistics, time wasn't on my side and I was likely to remain childless for having waited so long. Closure, as provided by mother nature. There's a resounding finality to the kind of closure that results in the slamming of a window, but I don't know how satisfactory it might be when its someone else doing the slamming.

Letting time in the form of deadlines provide closure on other things-- writing, education and job opportunities-- has led to a deep sense of discontent with myself. Sometimes, it is all well and good to go with the flow and see where life takes me-- but most of the time I reject the idea of letting life happen to me that way. I want to be in control of my decisions! I want to create my own closure! Even if control and closure are only illusions of my over active imagination.

But again, the most satisfactory end game moments are rarely found in real life. Friendships and relationships go out with a whimper, not a bang; lifelong goals wither on the vine as other responsibilities take precedent; choices we make are often balanced by the choices other people make: "I love you" is not closure-- "I don't love you" is.

The saying goes, "When one door closes, another opens." It's not always true. Some things, once gone, are gone forever and can never be replaced or forgotten. It's closure of the most bitter sort-- to lose something and know it was a one of a kind, whether a person or a dream or an experience, it's closure tinged with sadness and regret.

Time steals from us. It takes away options and choices and we say things like, "It wasn't meant to be" or "It happened for a reason." These are the statements of closure, of acceptance. True or not, we are forced to acknowledge that time is going to do the job for us if we can't do it ourselves. But when the closure is going to be painful-- as it so often is-- time softens the blow. Time takes away the litany of questions about what to do, what to do say, how to say it, when to say it, whether to pursue it any further. Time says, "Enough is enough. It's over. Move on."

In fiction, time stands still. I can dawdle over the ending, tweak the words until they hum with significance and resonate in my soul. I can say goodbye, I love you, fuck you, you will never hurt me again-- and I can take my sweet time saying it. This messy existence of mine is tidy in fiction, it makes sense, it takes the path I want it to go. And, if I decide I want to take another path, fiction provides me with endless roads not taken-- all of which are mine to explore at will. I can create the closure missing from my real life, I can commit to the decisions that are too big and scary to make, I can give the farewell speech that I was too tear choked and tongue tied to say. Fiction lets me create my own closure. Writing that closure is my salvation from regret.


  1. Lots of sage insights here. And one of the things I'm thinking about after reading this is the "time stands still" quality of fiction... about how that's true, for both readers and writers, even after the work is complete—if we want it to be. A reader, of course, can come back to a favorite book and that world will still be there. And as a writer, I can create characters who delight me, and they'll always be those same people, saying and doing the things I love them for.

  2. Dear Kristina,

    You're so right about fiction. It gives us a level of control we'd never have in "real" life. I wrote about fiction giving the reader control, but it's true of the author as well.

    Meanwhile, I think your greeting card line would make a fabulous *opening* to a story.


  3. Maybe the sense that time stands still in a story comes from how long it takes to write. I real tiem, teh action might take five minutes, but sometimes, it takes a week, a month, or even a year to write it. Kind of like dodging bullets in the Matrix, only without the cool dusters.

  4. Jeremy, I also have characters who delight me. But sometimes I do wonder what they're doing now. :-)

    Lisabet, the opening of a story. Hmm! Hadn't considered that!

    Kathleen ~ I love the Matrix reference. If it wasn't so darn hot, I might actually be tempted to wear a duster while I write. Ha!

  5. Very insightful, Kristina - especially the part about missed deadlines being a kind of closure. And of course fiction as a place to create closure. I love the greeting-card line, though it works best if the breakup was NOT a response to the cheating.