Being a writer is like being a photographer. We can provide a snapshot of a life, a moment, one perspective — but however long or short that moment lasts, there will always be other stories left untold, whispering at the edges, like the blurred out faces of tourists in the background of your holiday snaps. You look at the photograph and you wonder what happened next to the people inside, what roads they took after the story stopped. Where are they now?
I recently finished reading The Postmistress by Sarah Blake, easily one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while. Near the end, one of the characters recounts the tale of Theseus, the Greek hero who sails off to war, promising his father that should he return alive, his boat will have white sails.
For years, the father climbs up to the mountain cliff and scans the horizon, desperate for a hint of movement, the return of his son. Every day he walks up there, and sees nothing but the taunting white froth of the sea. And then, one day, sails on the horizon. Sails, after so long. But the sails are black and the father jumps off the cliffs to his death while Theseus is returning home victorious, his promise forgotten.
It would have been so easy to fix that mistake and create a happily ever after. But without the mistake, the story wouldn’t have mattered, wouldn’t have endured. The mistake makes the story, is the story. It is why in the photograph, the author focused in on Theseus as opposed to anyone else in the frame.
Out of the countless stories out there, it is the ones with the most mistakes in them that stick with me longer, both as a reader and a writer. That is how I pick which photographs to take, which photographs to share. But then I can’t help but look at all the untold mistakes blurred in the background, and want to bring them into focus too, hear their voices, find a way out of the mess.
I always pictured writing as a way of making sense of things, a way of setting things right. You push your characters through every imaginable hell but somehow, somehow, things make sense at the end, the mistakes unravel into orderly lines. And they lived happily ever after. But now I’m wondering whether I’m not fixing or tidying, I am simply following a mistake for as far as it lets me.