Possible Selves – Who Else Could I Be?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  Mostly I think about it in terms of characters.  To breathe life into a complete invention, there needs to be a back story,  if only in the author’s head.  It’s a reverse engineering of sorts.  We go backwards to justify the present.  We see the parts to justify the whole.  But what of real people?  What would we be…who would we be, if we didn’t live where we do, have the families we have, have made the decisions we have made or been required to do the things we have done?  Who would we be?

Writers play with these ideas when they write time travel stories.  The rules are complex, change this or that and you change everything; violate this law or that one and render the whole work unbelievable.  This is one of the reasons I haven’t written a tale of time travel, but that is not to say I never will.  The other reason is I haven’t had to.  This ground is rich for contemporary fiction too.  People have a way of telling us where they have come from.  We are who we have become and also who we are becoming, if that makes sense.  It’s on the edge of my mind and so its difficult to grasp, but this is where fiction comes into it.  It can capture that which flutters in the corner.

When I wrote the short short, Little Wild Things, I was playing with this notion of who would we be, if things had gone differently.  Perhaps Gil, the main character, is having a very late mid-life crisis.   As he is ending his long career as an academic and is required to make an inspirational speech of sorts about the meaning of it, he finds himself without words.  All his life, from his earliest memories, has led him to where he is and not once has he questioned this until his last day before retirement.  The silence in his head throughout his day is a tribute to all those other people he could have been.  The title of this story alludes to who this very educated man may have been before the education took hold.

Perhaps, this is what a mid-life crisis is – the realisation that saying to yes to one possibility means saying no to the others.  We come to realise we are products of our decisions, even those we didn’t know we made.  People touch us too and change us.  Gil’s mother and his older brother made education tantalising.  They implanted the idea and this became the decision Gil didn’t remember making.  It’s true of all of us, I think;  that we are almost accidentally self-made.  It is a wrench, when we discover the truth of this and this is where the stories are, I think.

That fiction may be real and reality a fiction takes aim at our soft places.  It reminds us our intentions and ambitions are only part of the story of us.  There are unexpected forces afoot which steer us this way and that.  For the driven, this may present a problem.  One day we wonder who we might be, if things were different, and then we are confronted by the legions of our still-born selves.  But we do recover.  We understand that life is choice; that there are limits to our possibilities.  We will go on to make further choices, both known and unknown, be worked upon by unknown forces and so on.   What strange strange creatures we are.  Not only do we look inside, what we see frightens us.