Margaret Atwood Suggests: “Now try How and Why”

I have this memory of being about four years old and running around the house like a wild monkey. I ran to the bathroom and began unrolling the roll of toilet paper, because what four year old can resist asserting such tremendous power as unrolling something that has been so carefully wound? Anyway, in my tyrannical rampage, I remember having a very startling and serious thought for the first time: this toilet paper is going to be very hard to put back, in fact, once it’s unrolled that’s pretty much it. I realized, in a vague sort of way, that all the people I knew were kind of like little squares of toilet paper that were being constantly unrolled. This analogy was my first notion of the concept of mortality.

I was a weird kid, what can I say? #INFP problems. Also, maybe being the only child of psychologist parents had something to do with it.
MargaretATwoodQuoteAnyway, since that moment, I’ve always been very aware of THE END.  I can’t seem to help it. I remember, many nights following the toilet paper incident, laying in my bed and sobbing and sobbing because I realized that I was probably going to outlive my parents. I had nightmares about it. When my mom actually did die two years ago, way before her time, the nightmares came back. Dreams about losing people that I love, dreams that rip my heart out. I have them all the time. Maybe this is sort of a morbid aspect of my personality,  but having to live through your childhood nightmares will do that to you, as I’m sure many others could attest. I’m also a bit of an empath: I pick up other peoples’ feelings on my antennae too and have to conscientiously shut it off or I’d just be a crying machine all the time (which wouldn’t be much help to anyone and I’m sure would be pretty annoying to the people actually going through the things).

It’s not death itself that is frightening. I have a secure belief in Christ and the promise of eternity. My own death isn’t scary to me.

What is scary, rather, is the concept of THE END. The end of days that we shared with someone we loved. The end of opportunity to live out dreams. The end of the brief time we get to make our presence count. The end of little things. The end of taking-for-granted. The end of seemingly endless days.

A positive of this fear, I guess, is that I don’t really take too many things for granted. My awareness of THE END will inevitably come and smack me in the face if I start taking stuff for granted. However, this awareness can also be a joy-thief at times. It’s sort of a conundrum. Be aware of THE END. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t get so obsessed with not taking things for granted that you can’t enjoy the moment. It’s a tough one, really. Anyone got it figured out? Please let me know if you’ve got the balance just right because I have an awfully hard time with it.

I was thinking about all these things this morning when I read a short story by Margaret Atwood called, “Happy Endings.”

You can read it, here.

Basically, there are two principal characters, John and Mary, who undergo several variations of storytelling. You should read it (it’s quite short), but here’s a summary anyway.

A. Everything goes along pretty smoothly until John and Mary die.

B. John uses Mary for sex and she makes it easy for him to do so. Mary gets so depressed eventually that she kills herself and John marries his other woman, Madge. John and Madge then follow scenario A.

C. John is middle-aged and married to Madge (living life A), and Mary is the younger, other woman. Mary is really in love with James though. John finds Mary and James together and kills them both and himself. Madge finds life A with a guy named Fred.

D. Fred and Madge are living life A until a tidal wave hits their house. They ultimately overcome hard times and continue on the A track.

E. Fred dies and Madge continues on alone until the end of A.

F. She suggests making the details of A more interesting, perhaps John is a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent. Ultimately, Atwood says, the ending is the same.

I’m sure there are many takeaways from this unusually formatted short story, but what struck me most was the question in the subtext: “What makes a story worth-reading?” The versions of this tale that were riddled with complexity were far more interesting to read, and, ultimately, A was always waiting and A was always the same. Atwood sums it up quite well at the end of the story when she addresses the reader with the statement:

“So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with. That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.”

She’s saying that the meaty part of the story isn’t THE END, or even what happens in the plot. She suggests that those who craft stories (or read them) focus instead on the How and Why.

And like so many other shared features, isn’t this something life has in common with storytelling? We don’t really experience life in the WHAT, but in that How and Why. How did you come to love someone. Why did you do that?
How did you feel? Why is it important? While THE END will always be THE END (at least on this side of eternity), the How and the Why are the places where we live.

As I said, I don’t have the balance figured out between enjoying the moment and not taking things for granted, but my luckily my own story is full of lots of interesting Hows and Whys. I bet yours is, too. Life is much more than “A what and a what and a what.”

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