Tuesday, 23 August 2011

John Irving & the Worst-Case Scenario

John Irving has, over the last couple of years, worked his way up the heap to become one of my all-time favourite authors.  What started with a casual interest in reading "Cider House Rules" after seeing the movie has bloomed into a quest to read all of Irving's novels.  I want to devour every last word the man has written.

However, one has to be careful about over-exposure when perusing the works of Mr. Irving.  Although brilliant, he tends to write some very bleak, heart-rending literature.  Don't get me wrong, he's wickedly funny at times, but what sticks with me the longest after reading one of his novels is the overwhelming tragedy that stalks his characters throughout.   For that reason, I only tend to choose John Irving for every fourth or fifth book that I read.    If I read too much all at once I get, shall we say, moody....

I recently finished Irving's latest novel, "Last Night in Twisted River".  (Incidentally, you can peruse a micro-review along with reviews of some other novels at Fruitless Pursuits, HERE).  At the end of this novel, both within the plot and through an afterword, Mr. Irving reveals some of his writing process.  Two things really captured my imagination.  First, Irving writes his novels backwards!  He writes the last sentence first and works his way backwards to the first sentence. This fascinated me as it would never occur to me to write this way.  Now that it's been suggested though, I kind of want to try it.  Maybe one day...

Secondly, and more importantly for our purposes, Irving thinks about his characters' situations and comes up with the worst-case scenario for those characters that still allows them to fulfill their role in the plot.  Since he's writing backwards, he already knows the final destinies of his characters and what they need to accomplish.  All he needs to do now is make them suffer for it.

Well, this interests me because I relate to it.  Both in my writing and in my actual life.  I frequently picture the worst-case scenario for any situation.  That's not to say that these scenarios come to pass or that I pessimistically expect them to.  Quite the contrary, I've been described in my life as "stupidly optimistic," believing things will work out even when confronted with a real life worst-case scenario.  I generally imagine what horrible things could happen, or even are likely to happen, but then do whatever it is I have planned anyway, regardless of any potential consequences.   

So why do I bother even imagining the worst-case scenario if it isn't going to alter my behaviour?  John Irving says that he does it to sort of ward off these terrible things in real life.  Here's a brief quote from the novel's afterword:

"What I did not give Danny was my life, which has been largely happy and very lucky.  I gave Daniel Baciagalupo the unluckiest life I could imagine.  I gave Danny the life I am afraid of having - the life I hope I never have.  Maybe that's autobiographical, too - in a deeper, more meaningful, certainly more psychological way.  (When you write about what you fear, about what you hope never happens to you - or to anyone you love - surely that's a little autobiographical.)"

I don't know if I imagine my own worst-case scenarios for the same reasons, although his reasons certainly strike a chord with me.  In the end, I guess I think of these things for the same reason I write in the first place -  because I can't help myself.  My mind, when left idle, just starts pumping out a lot of potential "what-ifs."  A lot of them are incredibly dark.  Why?  I do not know.  I guess it's just the way I am.

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