Monday, October 17, 2011

Forgiven, But Never Forgotten

by Kathleen Bradean

At the end of the movie Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio's character asks: Is it better to live as a monster, or die as a good man? The death he speaks of isn't physical. It's obliteration of self. He'd rather undergo a lobotomy while grasping desperately to an illusion than live and acknowledge the truth about himself.

I write many characters who are dogged by regret. They're forever trying to fix the past even when they know there's no way to change it. Internal conflict like that isn't the same as learning a lesson from a mistake, because a lesson allows a character to move forward. Regret keeps them mired in the past and clouds their judgment. Like a ghost doomed to repeat the same motions for all eternity with no resolution, the character rewinds and replays the same scenario over and again, until something jars them out of it.

That's the lovely thing about stories. A writer can force a character out of a rut. You can make them fall in love and finally see a different future. You can make them confront their enemies and triumph. You can make them finally forgive themselves and move on. You can pry their mental fingers off whatever it is that they hold onto so desperately. Or you can make them fail, as Lenardo DiCaprio's character did in Shutter Island, but with grace and dignity.

When I first saw this theme on our calendar, I thought about how important self-forgiveness is to a writer, but Lisabet handled that aspect beautifully and I can't think of anything to add to her words. But while forgiveness is the absolution we need to move on, forgetting isn't an option. Like method actors, there are many of what I call method writers who draw deeply on their emotional memory and pour it out on the page. If we forget, we can't tap into it.

But I don't think many of us forget. As much as we'd like to, late at night, when the house is peaceful and the world is dark, when we should be sleeping, we haunt ourselves. Many writers know this is the creative hour, that space between wakefulness and sleep. Stories, plots, characters, all of it comes pouring out of us. This is the time of night when Mary Shelley, in the grips of a waking dream, dashed down what was to become the novel Frankenstein. What a horrible thing it would have been if she'd forgotten


  1. Damn! Nicely said!

    I think you measured up nicely to your own question, "what does one say to follow this post?" that you posed on Lisabet's treatment of the subject.

  2. Hi Kathleen!

    Nicely said. I agree that it's wise to forgive but not to forget, since so much of forgiveness is about freeing ourselves but it doesn't mean we have to be dumb.


  3. Garce - There's a point to the saying about not letting someone live rent free in your head, but you're right, forgetting is a bad move.

  4. Great post, Kathleen -

    That's the wonderful thing about being a writer. You can spin even the most awful experiences into literary gold.

  5. Lisabet - Alice Walker is one of the best at this. She writes about horrible things, but with such a deft touch that you don't want to look away. And then, yes, she makes it better. She doesn't fix the past, but she scales down hope to human size.

  6. Oh yes. Forgive but Don't Forget would make a good slogan on a writer's ink-stained T-shirt. Re Alice Walker, we should prob. have a week devoted to her on this blog some time. Re spinning awful experiences into literary gold, that's my topic for the week of Oct. 23. :D

  7. Jean - Yes! (be sure to get Alice to guest blog)

  8. "...late at night, when the house is peaceful and the world is dark, when we should be sleeping, we haunt ourselves."

    Brilliant, and true. Thanks for sharing this. I haven't seen the movie Shutter Island, but now I'm intrigued.

  9. Kristina - I'm afraid that I'm ruined Shutter Island for you though, since trying to figure out what's real and what isn't is such a big part of the story.


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