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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Atonement: Our Fiction and Our Truths

An epiphany.

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 (reviewed earlier on 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 make decisions—now.

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 the epiphany.

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.

Tips and Tidbits

(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 the newly-published.)

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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