Monday, February 17, 2014

Sister life

by Joan

I’m fascinated by the idea that single moments in time affect destiny. A missed train, a lost letter, a betrayal, an un-forgiven insult, a lost job, a war; these are the heartaches and tragedies of fiction and life.

As writers, we understand the power of words. Words spoken and words left unsaid. Recently, the Good Men Project shared a post, “A First Love Found Me on Facebook 30 Years Later. What He Confessed Took My Breath Away,” written by Robin Rice, novelist and writer of this other moving essay

They had shared only one lovely night. It wasn’t until thirty years later that he said, “I thought about you constantly after that one date. For years it was daily. Then, because it was ruining my life, I forced it to an every week or so category. When I met my wife, maybe once every month.”

But he’d never told her. She's devotedly married, but still she wondered, “What might it have been like, had I known?”

In Tiny Beautiful Things Cheryl Strayed eloquently wrote, “I'll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don't choose. We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us. There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore.” 

I like to think there are infinite alternate universes where each sister life runs its course, where countless paths split like hairline cracks in ice.

Sometimes those life-changing moments consist of particular individual choices (this love or that?), others, decidedly intrusive decisions (such as for Philomena), still others, the affects of world events, such as the Depression or war. What might life have been like, if only...

What if Theo had not lifted The Goldfinch from The Met? What if Jacob Jankowski had jumped a different train, not served Water for Elephants? What if Briony had not told the lie, had no need for Atonement? What if Harold Fry had dropped Queenie’s letter in the postbox and walked a hundred yards back to the house instead of hundreds of miles through England? Different stories, of course.

In Life After Life, what if Ursula Todd had not died on that first snowy evening in 1910? Well here, at least, Kate Atkinson unveiled Ursula’s sister lives.  

Francine Prose powerfully wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “Life After Life makes the reader acutely conscious of an author’s power: how much the novelist can do. Kill a character, bring her back. Start a world war or prevent one. Bomb London, destroy Berlin. Write a scene from one point of view, then rewrite it from another. Try it this way, then that. Make your character perish in a bombed-out building during the blitz, then make her part of the rescue team that (in a scene with the same telling details) tries unsuccessfully to save her.”

Which single moment has changed your character's life? What if it had happened another way?

Bandon Beach, Oregon, photo by Rick Mora


  1. Beautiful post, Joan! There's a lot of power in "what if," isn't there?

  2. Thank you, Cindy. After all, 'what if' keeps fiction alive!


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