Paths

When my father was seventeen years old, something happened to him that would change the course of his life. This was 1939, the first year of the second world war. My father, like many young men at the time, felt sure he would play some part in fighting for his country. Older men were already leaving the community to enlist. He and his friends all looked forward with mixed feelings to the following year when they would leave their small home town in Scotland.

Unlike his father who was employed on the estate of the local castle as a gardener, my dad was a lathe worker at a pipeworks factory. He had left school with few qualifications and saw his future as a continuation of his family's roots. He would work, marry, and have children. That was his path. The thought of moving away (other than to fight in the war) did not occur to him.

Then it happened. An obstacle fell across his path, an obstacle which refused to let him find a way round. Due to his work, his hands became infected with lead poisoning. He was signed off for two weeks' unpaid leave. This was annoying - his family desperately needed his wage - but not life shattering in itself. He spent the time helping his parents in their work and seeing friends.

During one such meeting and an unplanned footie match, he was tackled to the ground and broke his leg. The break was clean and again, although it would prevent him from working for a while, it wasn't the end of the world. He was admitted into the hospital at Dumbarton and after a short while, the doctors discovered that the infection in his hands had spread to his broken leg. Whether it was down to an inability to house long-term patients or a shortage of beds, my father was moved to a hospital on the isle of Cumbrae.

My dad on the right.
Thrown into this unfamiliar environment, he made new friends and with time on his hands (he spent eighteen months in this hospital which must have felt like a decade to a seventeen year old), he found a new interest - books. He had never been a great reader but during the time in Cumbrae, he devoured whatever books he could lay his hands on. His fellow patients were a mixed bunch of men (this was a single sex hospital), some younger than he, some much older. He discovered not only about their lives and experiences but moreover how his own viewpoint fitted into that. His parents would visit him once a month with their ration of bacon and news of the folk back home. I wonder if they saw the change in him.

On returning home, at the age of nearly twenty, he found himself re-labelled a cripple. There would be no fighting for his country. All of his male friends had joined up. His female friends, in his absence, had turned from young girls into replicas of their mothers and grandmothers. There was no chance of employment for him. In his community's eyes, he was destined to live a half-life. Ladies of his mother's age whom he had previously carried shopping for now gave up their seat for him on the bus. The pity was bad enough but he now found that his new attitudes, his new horizons gleaned from his time in hospital, had no place in his home town. His family, his friends, his community had stayed the same; he had not.

I'll halt my father's story at this stage to see if you've realised the writing lesson I'm trying to point out. We all love happy endings but for a story to work, your main character must meet with obstacles to carrying on in the direction they have always pursued. On occasion, they will be forced to sidestep the fallen log or marshy patch before regaining their original path. Sometimes, there will be no option but to take the other path, the one slightly hidden, the one where you can't see around the bend to what lies beyond. Hopefully, whichever path they end up on, it will bring them to a destination a better person than before the obstacle intervened. By all means, give your character a happy ending - let them marry the girl of their dreams, defeat the wicked monster, win the competition - but throw an obstacle (or two) into the mix too.

Just in case you're still interested, my father refused to accept the future he appeared to have been handed and over the next few months, he painfully taught himself to walk again, first on crutches, then sticks and finally with no support at all, from one bench to the next in the gardens of the castle. He moved away, finding employment as a lathe worker first in Worcester, then London, then Manchester. During this time, he re-educated himself through correspondence courses and university. He learned a love of the theatre and jazz. His obstacle threw him a long way off course, into uncharted territories for a Dunbartonshire boy, but in the end he got his happy ending.

Comments

  1. I agree. Sometimes the happy ending isn't the right ending for the story, and often the obstacles the MC faces takes them down paths we can't foresee. That's why I just go with wherever my characters lead me.

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  2. Good for your dad! (Knew he must have worked something out, otherwise he wouldn't have gotten to be your dad.)

    It's one thing to live a happy, uneventful life (as if anyone actually does), but nobody wants to READ about it, or watch a movie about somebody whose greatest challenge is whether to wear the teal or the turquoise shirt today.

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  3. Fi, I agree that there shouldn't always be a happy ending. Sometimes that is what is unexpected and what makes the story interesting. Last night, we watched The Woman In Black. You think it has a happy ending right up until the last five minutes. It was surprising and I said, "Well, I wasn't expecting that ending," and you know what, it made the movie a little bit better for me.

    In my own work, I rarely write anything fictional, and my blog focuses on humor, but there are a slew of bad things in my background that I intend to write about. The first serious departure from my humor writing will be featured in June in a guest post by RachelintheOC and I'm super excited to see what happens when I put a serious and somewhat unhappy piece out there. It sort of has a happy ending, in a long run kind of way.

    If I wanted to write all happy endings, I would write for Disney movies. The struggles in life are what strengthen us, I think.

    Your dad sounds like he got a great gift with his departure from the norm. Sometimes the ending we didn't want is exactly what we really needed!

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  4. Just because it itsn't the "expected" ending, doesn't mean it can't be happy. In fact, the things that we don't know we need or want are often the things that make us the happiest when we get them :)

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  5. I think that when we stop resisting and let our lives flow, we find where we are supposed to be. For over 20 years, I've been writing about women, women who awaken to who they are and begin to become what they can be. It's a lifetime journey. Most start, like your father, with adversity, and may resist it or wallow in it but at some point we hopefully say, Hey, What About Me?

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