Atonement: Our Fiction and Our
It happened as I sat in a dark auditorium at
the Laemmle in Pasadena watching Atonement.
I expected to love the movie—all those Golden
Globe awards—but I thought it would do little
more for me than most good films. You know. An
hour or so of entertainment. A small check for
the review I was writing.
But when it ended, there I sat, unmoving. In
the dark until the lights came up. Then I sat
longer until the ushers came to push kernelcorns
past my feet with brooms and dustpans on long
sticks, they—finally (gently)—asked
me to leave to make way for the next group of
people coming in.
It was the end of the movie—the very end—that
had its hold on me. There was Vanessa Redgrave,
her eyes as alive as they might have been were
she 20, but aging. Aging. Vanessa hadn't appeared
on the screen until this last scene. It was the
only one in which she played the protagonist as
an elderly woman. We had seen the protagonist
Briony as a child, yes. We had seen her as a young
writer tapping at a Corona. And later the same
character as a young woman journaling her wartime
memories. But this was Briony in another life,
her last life.
It felt like reincarnation. Here was this novelist,
after having lived a lifetime. Preparing to die.
She looks at us through the camera, tells an interviewer
(and the audience, as if this were a stage play
and she were addressing us live) that she had
felt she must write the stories of people she
had hurt so she put them in a book. But she hadn't
written biographies or even nonfiction. She fictionalized
these characters, gave them endings that they
couldn't have—didn't have—because
of her actions as a child.
As an author, she had given these people she
once knew the gift of a happy ending rather than
reality. No tragic endings for her! Death on the
battlefield and in the blitz, the early deaths
her protagonists had actually gotten before they
had fully realized their love.
She told us that by fictionalizing their story,
she had made things right for them. But it was
more than atonement for her. More than a posthumous
redemption for them. It was deliverance.
As I sat there, it occurred to me . . . that's
what I had done with my novel This is the Place
earlier on Myshelf.com). I, now about the age
of Redgrave, had changed the ending just before
it was published in 2001. At the time I thought
I had made the change because the real ending
would never play for this generation of independent
women. And that was true. It wouldn't have. The
stupidity of a girl marrying too young a man of
a different religion, a different culture. Of
tossing her budding journalism career aside to
support him because, after all, it would be he
who would be making the living. Of course! He
was the one who counted. The society she lived
in told her this was so. The times (the 50s) told
her this was so.
Such a lack of backbone, of self-image would
be so foreign to women in the 1990s it wouldn't
have been believable. Or, if believable, (I felt
it in my bones!) they would have had little sympathy
for that character who was me.
And what of those women, the four generations
or hardy Utah women before me—my grandmothers—who
had all made similar mistakes that weren't mistakes
at the time. They had all married men outside
their religion, each for her own reason. They
were reasons of time or place or circumstance.
Not wrong choices. Just so dissimilar—distant—from
the way women make decisions—can
The book I was writing was a memoir. So, with
the realization that my story wouldn't play in
Peoria, much less in New York or Los Angeles,
I turned it into a novel and called it fiction.
What had been true—not necessarily right
or wrong—in the 1950s was wrong for an audience
of this millennium. What was right then, in the
1950s, felt alien, unjust, insipid, and stupid
in this time decades later.
But as I sat in the theater, a big empty platinum
screen before me, I realized that whatever my
motives for changing the ending had been at the
time, there was something else. I had done more
than make a calculated plot change. I had given
myself a gift, given myself a chance to consider
who I might have been if I had been born a few
decades later, made different choices. That was
From this distance—that of many decades—I
could gauge the freedom I didn't have as a young
woman. The self-realization I didn't have but
now do. I had given myself the opportunity to
assess and change and even to forgive but it took
the movie Atonement, the visual incarnation
of Ian McEwan's novel. It took seeing my eyes
in Redgrave's eyes to give me that needed nudge.
I learned other things, too. I know now not to
expect that a story should go away and leave you
alone. At least in some cases, that may be expecting
the impossible. It would certainly be expecting
the undesirable. Our stories. The stories that
longed to be put to paper in the days long before
anyone ever told us that "there is a book in each
of us." The stories that appeared to us full-blown
like an untended Canna lily in the side yard or
the ones we nurtured into shoots from seeds tenderly
pressed into potting mix and watched until they
became edible sprouts.
Those stories. I wonder if writers ever finish
them. I thought, once committed to paper, we writers
would rid those stories from our dreams or our
nightmares, but even after my story was published
I kept fixing it in my head when I slept. When
I was reading I scrawled notes about it, notes
that disappeared when I turned the page. I jotted
ideas on scratch paper that began to resemble
snowflakes on my desk. Hundreds and hundreds of
them, ephemeral. Most unlikely to ever be acted
on. As likely to be whisked away as snow is to
melt. And I felt a sort of guilt about it. It
was as if, had I been a professional, I would
be able to rid myself of this nagging. If I were
a professional, I could gather the discipline
to do something with those scraps.
Now, years after I first felt the heft of my
book in my hands, my story is back again. Only
this time I am not being nudged by my subconscious
about metaphor or structure or dialogue. This
is something deeper. Maybe I am now ready to write
a real memoir.
(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists
a Tidbit that will help authors write or
promote better. She will also include a
Tip to help readers find a treasure among
long-neglected books or a sapphire among
Writers' Tidbit: For a
list of major review journals—including
some that review POD-published books—and
an article with suggestions for getting
reviews go to the Resources
for Writers section of my Web site.
You'll also find a list of newspapers the
occasionally publish reviews (though fewer
and fewer are doing that all the time).
Readers' Tip: Avid readers
will find my take on Newsweek's top
100 books of all times on my "Stretching
Our Taste in Books Just a Tad" blog
along with a link to that list.
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