Destiny and Its Branches
I recently came across an old photograph of one of my brothers, now dead, among his classmates and couldn’t stop wondering about these children who are now nameless. It is typical of photographs of schoolchildren, in which they are invariably lined up, admonished to stop wiggling, and told to smile. Most of them manage, looking more mystified than vain or eager to have their photo taken. But none of that is what fascinates me. What grabs me is the story I see unfolding. If you line up any dozen children from a grade-school class, each and every one looks like he or she has the same potential, the same opportunity, the same future as any other. They are bright-eyed, tidy for the most part (it’s usually before recess for this kind of portrait), and about the same size. And yet, in each one are the seeds of a unique and striking life—with at least one tragedy and, one hopes, at least one great joy.
The thought about children hiding their futures behind bright smiles and curious eyes came to the fore again recently when someone I grew up with was arrested for a violent crime. I was stunned—and still am. It got me thinking about other people I have known since childhood or college and what has happened to them in the intervening years—which number more than I care to think about. A dear college friend committed suicide, leaving behind a loving husband and two brilliant children; a relative died the same way, unable to come to grips with the sorrows of his life; one of the nicest, most popular guys in grade school chose drugs and motorcycles; and a happy-go-lucky prep school student has been struggling with mental illness for thirty years. These are the lives that throw into relief the quiet ones that are lived in the suburbs with summer vacations spent white-water rafting or hiking, or rewriting for the tenth time the novel they started in college or during a brief period of unemployment.
This recurring wonder is probably what’s behind some of my drive to write. Nevertheless, I didn’t expect my characters to emerge so violently from my own life. It’s one thing to interview a criminal, to learn how he or she thinks, or to go into social services and count in a client list a few ex-felons, men or women guilty of robbery or kidnapping. We keep them at a respectful distance according to the dictates and professional requirements of our job. And no matter how much we might come to respect, like, even admire them for the changes they bring about in their lives, it’s not the same as looking back at your childhood and discovering that an old friend is now charged with a serious crime.
The only way for me to deal with this turn of events is to put the character into a novel, so this story about a childhood friend will probably show up in a future Mellingham. I want to understand how this life happened, how it evolved and took the turns that led to that startling newspaper report. Only by experiencing such a life through my imagination will I understand it on a deeper level, and set aside the facile explanations or even condemnations.
That’s how I cope—I write about it, whatever it is. When I visit a new place, I see it as a setting for a novel or short story; if I meet an interesting character, I want that person in a book. I improve people’s speeches in my head while they are talking to me, rewrite their personal histories, and re-imagine their fate. Eudora Welty had it about right when she said in One Writer’s Beginnings, “Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime, and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.” Writing is for me the best way to make sense of life.