Recently, on the third anniversary of my mother’s death, I went to Hedgebrook to have some writing time as well as to teach at the Summer Salon, a day of small-group writing workshops given in the Hedgebrook cottages. Three years earlier, I had been scheduled to do the same, but the week before my departure for Hedgebrook, my sister messaged me and my siblings that our mother was dying. I flew to San Diego the next day and stayed for two weeks, the amount of time it took to see our mother through her last days and to bury her.
Now in the woods amid birdsong and five other cottages which housed writers I admire, I wondered what work I could accomplish during my stay, wondered if I would solve the problem of the novel I’m working on. I thought about my mother whose opinion of my writing I could never fully gauge, and I invited her to be with me there as I pondered and wrote, and daydreamed too much when the words did not come. I would ask her questions:
Me: What do you think of this sentence?
Her: Whatever you think is fine.
Me: Is this scene believable?
Her: I don’t really know about those things.
Me: Does this sound too much like a cliché?
Her (with a little laugh, but with a tone that said she meant it): Don’t ask me.
She never liked being asked for an opinion on such things. Fair enough. I would leave her alone.
That first night I turned the dimmer switch on the downstairs lights very low so there was just a glimmer of light inside the cottage when I turned out my bedside lamp in the sleeping loft. I don’t like being in complete darkness. Maybe it comes from a near lifetime of nearsightedness – the inability and insecurity of not seeing clearly and the fear of not seeing at all. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always been a little bit afraid of the dark. Maybe I’m afraid of ghosts. Or I only want to see them in a reassuring glimmer of light.
I woke early after a fitful night. It was just after five and the light was filtering through the trees and into the uncurtained loft window. As I contemplated getting out of bed, the dimmed downstairs lights blinked off. As soon as I realized what had happened, they blinked back on again. “Mom?” I asked.
I’m on the cusp of believing in the supernatural and mystical, so I was willing to cross the threshold into the twilight zone and presume that the flickering light was a sign from my mother. On the other hand, I can easily be swayed by the workaday notion that a swell or drop of electrical current was the source of the flickering. To be sure, electricity is as explainable to me as the supernatural.
Aside from the question of my mother’s presence, the other mystery before me in my cottage was what to do with the novel I’m working on. I thought it was nearly done – just some easily addressed issues for the revision stage. Wishful thinking. I admit as I was writing, following a plotline that seemed to be pulling me in its, perhaps, wayward direction, I wondered if it was too contrived, too reliant on coincidence. Things could happen this way, I reasoned to myself. But my very wise writing group said no.
So then I thought maybe if I pushed it to the cusp of the surreal, then coincidence becomes believable. But then I would have to write in a new and super-unnatural way for me. I would have tyo become a different writer. Surely, there was another way.
I googled “coincidence in fiction” and found “How to Write Coincidence the Right Way” by Alice Mattison on LitHub. Mattison points out, “Coincidences happen in life; they are suspect only in art.”
So if I’m thinking about my mother in my Hedgebrook cottage because I arrive on the anniversary of her death, is it a coincidence that the lights blink at me? And is it further coincidence when a few hours later I receive an email from a literary journal accepting for publication an essay I’d written about my mother? But if I were to write about all these coincidences (artfully), does they become suspect? Would I be leaping tall buildings to unfounded conclusions, following an unearned plotline, substituting wishful thinking for cause-and-effect?
In Mattison’s article she gives two examples of coincidence in literature which work. One is a scene from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End and the other is Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In the first example, Mattison explains how Forster makes the coincidence unobtrusive by making it unimportant to the key character in the scene. In the O’Connor story, Mattison notes that the blatant coincidence doesn’t bother readers because the characters are unaware of it.
Both are hard to pull off, but, hey, worth a try. Wish me luck. Because luck may be what it’ll take to solve this problem of coincidence in my novel.
Speaking of luck, I had it in heaps, finding myself among the brilliance of the other Hedgebrook Summer Salon teachers. I got to spend time in the fun, funny, thoughtful, and reflective company of Rebecca Brown, Suzanne Kelman, Anastacia Renee, Jennie Shortridge, and Storme Webber. It was magic, which, like coincidence, also happens in life.