Revising Regret: The Imaginative Wealth Of What Didn’t Take Place
By Robin Black
For a long time now, I have had a hunch that there is a connection between regret and fiction writing – beyond the obvious possibility that one might regret ever having started to write fiction.
Regret is among a very few emotions that cannot exist without an accompanying narrative.I wish I had gone on that trip because . . .I then would have met the love of my life; I then wouldn’t have set the house on fire; I then would have seen Paris before I died, which would have made dying more bearable for me. All regret carries within it a particular kind of fiction, one in which the rules of causality and chance are suspended – generally, in favor of the certainty of a happy end. We who know that we do not know what any future moment might bring, convince ourselves that we can know what would have happened in the past. . . if only. Regret makes confident storytellers of us all.
It also makes us fans of bold action – retrospectively, anyway. Social scientists and psychologists tell us with certainty that people are more likely to regret what they have notdone than what they have done. Since that concept of ‘doing’ and ‘not doing’ is a slippery one – when you don’t go on the trip you do stay home – I take this to mean that people tend to feel regret when they perceive that they have failed to do something more often than when they perceive that they have actively done the wrong thing. It’s the missed opportunity that feels poignant. The road not taken. The challenge to which we do not rise. The one who got away.
The imagination is awakened by the unknown in a way it can never be by the known. Despite its reputation as a waste of spirit and of time, regret teaches us many things, including that what didn’t happen can be a fiction writer’s greatest material source.
Often, when I am writing a story – or, recently, my novel – I will reach a point at which the whole structure takes on a moribund, fruitless quality. The narrative, once brimming with life and promise, has died – sometimes quite suddenly. (I bring this up because I suspect that I’m not the only one whose narratives nose-dive mid-composition in this way.) There are many reasons this can happen, but I believe that one of the biggest impediments to reviving such works is a too great attachment to what has happened in our stories up to that point. As soon as words and the events they comprise are on paper, they take on an unhelpfully inevitable quality. And so, we writers look forward as if - lifelike- what’s done is truly done and ask: What can next happen to improve this situation?
But, as regret narratives demonstrate time and again, what didn’t happen in a story may actually be a far greater resource for imaginative thinking than is what did. These days whenever I hit that still and frightening place in my work, instead of pushing forward as I used to try to do, I go back, convinced that I will find a moment of decision gloriously brimming with might have beens. I look for lines like: I thought of telling him what had happened the night before, but decided against it. Or, I could have run after her and pleaded my case, but instead, went back inside. Or, She stared at the phone for a very long while, but never picked it up. In other words, I look for the points of inaction that my characters might themselves later regret, those decisions that might one day inspire in them the rich fictions of which we are all such gifted authors when we regret having chosen the more passive, the safer of two possible paths.
For characters, as for us all, there are moments that feel like forks in the road, and while of course there are fictional beings whose inaction is itself a defining, essential quality, more often – in my work, anyway – the failure of one of my characters to act is the result of my hesitation and not his or hers. As an author, there can be a certain satisfaction in early drafts to keeping things relatively simple. For some of us, the lure of completion is alone enough to guarantee that. When I write, I have something like a heat sensor that can detect possible complications, the difficult exchanges, the entanglements that might arise; and against all interests of the story, though perhaps with the illusion of a faster path to its end, it is often my first instinct to avoid such sparks and fires – until one day I sit down at the computer to a narrative that has taken on a deathly, immobile quality.
Just last week, at such a point in my novel, I went back and discovered, as I almost always do, the moment at which my central character chose inaction over a more complicated course. I changed her mind and – let’s just run with this metaphor – breathed life and energy back into the typescript corpse.
In real life, we don’t get to return to our twenties and step onto the airplane we were afraid to fly or audition for the play that excited and scared us or ask the beauty to dinner or take the job in Boston. What’s done is done – in real life – and all we can do is tell ourselves the poignant, intuitively well-crafted stories of what might have been.
But in fiction, what has been done can be undone and what hasn’t been done can be done. And maybe it will help you, next time your story seems to have died on the screen to wander back through it and try to replace a poorly placed no, with a well placed yes. And see what happens. See that something happens.
Robin Black’s story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this, was published by Random House in 2010 to international acclaim. Robin’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, The Georgia Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Freight Stories,Indiana Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007). She is the recipient of grants from the Leeway Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Sirenland Conference and is also the winner of the 2005 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition in the short story category. Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010. Robin is curently working on her first novel which will also be released by Random House.