THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
January 23, 2016
Greetings! Welcome to The Joy of Story, where I post some thoughts and opinions about writing, reading, and enjoying the art of storytelling. This week I offer my thoughts about Fate, Fact, and Fiction, and I invite your feedback. Please let me know what you think about the importance of fate in stories.
Also, please take a look at the promotion of Janine S. Volkmar’s fine travel memoir, France With My Father, which is made up of stories about travel, France, family, and art—and the art of getting lost and turning mistakes into adventures.
Finally, don’t forget to send in your 99-word stories for the month of February. Rules and deadlines are given at the end of this post.
“Fate” is a one-word tautology. Doris Day, that smooth-talker, told us all about it: “Whatever will be, will be.” Fate is the inescapable future, depending on the undeniable present, which is built of the unchangeable past. We can’t change our fate; we can only discover it. We may affect our future, perhaps, by quitting smoking or by driving drunk, by studying hard for the LSAT or by quitting IBM in a huff, but when we do that we’re only acting as an agent for fate.
Whether we bring about our fate by exercising free will, or whether it’s all written in stone, or on the wind, doesn’t really matter. It’s gonna happen. I don’t know if the stars and planets have anything to do with fate, but I’m guessing probably not. Is fate just a sequence of silly accidents that pop and fizzle throughout time and space? I don’t think so. I also don’t believe there’s a Big Dude in the sky charting it all out with a quill pen and papyrus, or maybe stone tablets, or maybe a golden abacus with pearl buttons, or maybe a giant Excel spreadsheet, spread out all over the firmament. Is fate merely the inevitable result of how a bunch of vulnerable dominos were set up sometime during the Big Bang, so that how we fare and how we die are just the consequences of the laws of chemistry and physics, constant and fair throughout the universe? Who knows? Who, for that matter, has time to care?
Fate is a fact of life, the way of the world, and the human condition. But these definitions are too limiting, because the inevitable and interconnected march we’re all on, plodding or racing into the future, also affects other living beings; other gasses, liquids, and solids that may not contain what we self-importantly call life; and other places in the vast universe, hot spots and cold spots where change may be wildly different phenomena. Fate happens out there, too.
Was fate established by an intelligent designer? Nope. Fate just is, always was, and, chances are, always will be. Whether or not it is propelled by intelligent design is a giant can of wriggling worms that I don’t care to open.
Fate is a matter of fact.
Moving on, fate is also an essential ingredient of the man-made microcosm of existence that we call fiction. We writers have every right to call ourselves the creators of our model-size universes. And we plot our stories using intelligent design. Or if we’re not plotters, we at least hold the reins intelligently. And we get to rewrite and revise, which is something even the mythical Big Dude can’t do.
However we think of fate when we talk about the real world, we can get better handle on it when we make up our stories, based on how we understand the laws of fairness and irony that define the stories in human culture.
The concept of fate is essential to storytelling and fiction writing. And one thing to know, one rule to follow or disobey at your own peril is: Dire predictions come true.
This is true in drama: Chekhov told us that when a rifle is hanging over the fireplace in Act One, that rifle must go off before the final curtain comes down. And when rifles are discharged on stage, someone’s going to get hurt.
The rule works in movies, too. If a character you love starts to cough from some illness, you’d better get out the Kleenex, because chances are that character won’t live long enough to read the credits.
Fate was essential to Greek tragedy. When an oracle tells King Laius that his infant son will one day kill him, he and his wife cripple the child and leave him to die on a mountaintop. Does the infanticide work? No way. The kid grows up, comes back to town, unwittingly kills his dad, and I won’t say what he does to his mom.
In the fairy tale, when the spiteful fairy godmother predicts that the infant princess Briar Rose will, on her sixteenth birthday, prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall asleep for a hundred years, there’s no point in the King’s ordering that all the spinning wheels in town be burned. He’s be better off shopping for a good mattress.
And when the soothsayer advises Julius Caesar to beware the ides of March, he’s not really telling Caesar to call in sick on the fifteenth. What he’s saying is, “Dude. Better get your affairs in order, because come the sixteenth, you’ll no longer be wearing sandals.”
So, in fiction as in fact, it’s pointless to try to outsmart fate. The house always wins. To buck fate is to engage in hubris, and the penalty for hubris is always a most unwelcome irony. The so-called Higher Power named Fate shrugs and thunders, “Told ya so.” Of course in real life we can’t help fighting to survive (as we usually should); and because our fiction is about the human condition, our characters are likely to try to beat the odds, even if all they can hope for is a temporary respite.
There is a big difference, however, between human fate in fiction and human fate fate in fact. The fate of a character in a story ends with the words “The End.” An extension is allowed in the event of a sequel, and of course as long as the story remains in print or remains on shelves or on the Internet, the character’s fate is still accessible and knowable, but that fate is a done deal. The character may rest in peace.
In what we like to call “real life,” a person’s fate does not end with the words “rest in peace.” Death is part of the fate of each of us, but it rarely means the story is over. Because most of us, for better or for worse, are entitled to, or saddled with, an afterlife. No, the afterlife of which I speak has nothing to do with pearly gates and golden slippers, or with brimstone and pitchforks. The afterlife that is part of our lingering fate is made up largely of memories stored by friends and family; of tales told about us if we’re in any sense famous; and of DNA passed along for generations to come, for as long as human beings populate the planet, which may sound like quite a spell but is only a blip in the time span that is eternity. The point is: our lives may end but our presence remains and dwindles for a long time before it fizzles and whimpers into oblivion.
I think what makes us writers write and wish to be read is to keep our fates in progress for a while after we die. And why do we write as beautifully as we can while we are still in partnership with our fates? That’s probably the moral to this discussion: we all, willy-nilly, leave tracks in the sand. We don’t want to be remembered for ugly, obnoxious, lazy, antisocial tracks that stink of plastic litter, broken glass, and crap. No. Let us be remembered for having given the world something of value. If we have any influence over our fate, let it be this.
This essay first appeared in Black Lamb magazine.
And now a word from our sponsor…
Recently published by Daniel & Daniel:
France with My Father
A journey through memory,
art, time, and family
by Janine S. Volkmar
176 pages, paperback, $14.95
This book can be ordered through your local independent bookstore. It’s also available from Amazon and other online booksellers, or directly from the publisher: 800-662-8351.
Middle-aged adults often find themselves reconnecting with their aging parents. Often this involves care-giving, as the parents weaken into old age. More and more, however, as life expectancy continues to rise, seniors in their eighties and nineties are healthy, adventurous, and ready to travel with their grown children. Janine Volkmar’s new book, France With My Father, celebrates just such a relationship.
When Pierre Volkmar called his daughter and proposed that the two of them travel around France together, Janine was thrilled. She is an avid Francophile, and the fiction she writes is set in France, where she has family roots. But her main cause for joy was the chance to spend time alone with her father: “I felt so lucky to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with him, day after day.” And these were not fast-food meals. Lunches always took at least an hour. Pierre, also proud of his French roots, fancied French cuisine, eating anything on the menu that caught his interest, and always choosing the perfect wine.
Pierre and Janine Volkmar both proved to be adventurous travelers, open to whatever happened. They traveled without a firm itinerary or advance reservations. More than once they got lost, and when they did, Pierre’s response was “Let’s stop for coffee” if this was before noon, or “Let’s stop for a beer,” if after noon. These impromptu stops invariably resulted in conversations with strangers, who quickly became friends. “My father will talk to anybody,” Janine confides, and her book shows that she’s the same way.
“He was so patient and accommodating,” Janine says. “When I wanted to linger in museums or comb the Paris flea market for treasures, he was always a good sport.” One afternoon in the ancient town of Brantôme, the father and daughter ate lunch beside the river. Waiting for their meal, they lazily tossed bread to ducks, and Janine felt as if she were in an Impressionist painting. “It was clear to me that my father was just as happy as I felt in that moment.”
Janine S. Volkmar is a freelance editor and writer with a special interest in French art and culture. A native Californian and a librarian, she has lived a life of literature and words. She lives in a fishing village in Northern California, where she is currently working on a mystery novel set in nineteenth-century France.
Call for Submissions: 99-Word Stories wanted!
The deadline for February’s 99-word story submissions is February First. The stories will appear on my blog post for February 13, 2016.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: email@example.com
This month’s prompt for next month’s 99-word story:
You’ll note that the stories will appear on The Joy of Story February 13. That’s Valentine’s Day Eve, folks. To celebrate this coincidence, I challenge you to try your hand at romance writing (sincerely or as a spoof). Use this sentence, or something like this sentence, somewhere in the story: “It was one of those kisses that murmur, ‘Let’s get lost…”
Reread Rule 3, above; this must be a story, not just an essay. If I receive your story by February 1, and if you follow the rules, your story will appear on this blog February 13 and the week following.
As always, I thank you for stopping by. I hope you’ll return next week. Till then, stay well, write well, and make the most of the Joy in the stories you write and the stories you read.