Why is it that so many of us live our lives – subconsciously or otherwise – as if there is a secret rewind button always available? A button that gifts us the opportunity to revisit past triumphs, to avoid horrible defeats; a button which permits us to take different decisions and make alternate choices. And because we believe in its existence – totally and profoundly – we can never truly live our lives ‘in the moment’, no matter how much we kid ourselves that we do; we never really accept that once this moment has gone then it’s gone forever. It’s as if the Arrow of Time simply doesn’t apply.
You might argue that the minority who do understand – again, subconsciously or not – that there is no such safety net, are more likely to live life ‘in the fast lane’, to ‘flame and burn’. Are they more likely to become well-known, a ‘celebrity’ – whatever that might mean? Are they more likely to be successful? That depends on your definition, I suppose. But are they any less likely to make those same mistakes as us and suffer the same sorts of defeat? Absolutely not! Will they too wish they could go back and change things? Of course!
If we find ourselves in the former camp, supremely anonymous within the morass of humanity (however much we kid ourselves otherwise!), then at some point – hopefully? – the penny drops; either in a flash of insight or, over time, gradually the truth dawns on us. One day we suddenly realise that we can’t go back twenty years and un-say those things we said, do that thing we should have done, turn left instead of right.
And maybe even then we don’t believe it…
In a way, perhaps language holds the key. Think about it. It’s called ‘the past tense’ for a reason. If we can only describe something, articulate it, examine it in the past tense then that means it’s gone, lost irretrievably. “I type this word” – I’m doing it; “I typed this word” – I’ve done it, and I can’t un-type it. But in addition to giving us a black-and-white confirmation of how we stand – and how, moment by moment, the unavoidable fact that all of our experience has already happened, even that word I just typed! – it also offers us a means of revisiting, of reexamining, of trying out an alternative reality.
Of course we can’t really go back to that night in the University Halls of Residence and do X or say Y, nor can we alter that life-changing decision we made to say ‘No’ rather than ‘Yes’, but we can interrogate and cross-examine that moment, we can play out how those alternatives might have looked. Given we have sufficient imagination and a modicum of talent, writing offers us the next best thing to changing our past lives – and that is to reimagine them.
Okay, so it’s second prize, a silver medal if you like; but surely a medal of some colour is better than none?
The strap-line on this website is “furiously writing until the light goes out”, and I make no apology for that. However much talent I may or may not have, writing is my rewind button, the only tool I have to look back into my past and ask the ‘what if?’ question. Not only that, it gives me the chance to undertake that examination through the lives of other characters, to place them in situations – similar or dissimilar to my own history, it doesn’t matter – and to explore and examine.
In my work there are lots of characters who are trying to come to terms with their past, to reconcile themselves to their histories: Lewis and Anna in “At Maunston Quay”, Liam and Alison in “The Opposite of Remembering”, the narrator in “A Pattern of Sorts”. And published in a few months, in “On Parliament Hill” Neil will experience an in-depth re-evaluation of who his is and what he wants his future to be.
And maybe that’s the most important thing for all of us: deciding what sort of future we want for ourselves – because all too soon it’s going to become our past…