Writers often wonder how our work affects people. I am frequently surprised by feedback from readers of my poetry who have gleaned meanings I neither had in mind nor realized were there. I believe that once we put work out there to be read, we relinquish our control over it. From then on, people will get out of it whatever they will, regardless of what we might have intended.
Few of us imagine that our writings might actually change the life of a reader, but as I look back on one of my own experiences, I can encourage other writers with the knowledge that this is entirely possible.
In the earliest years of our marriage, my wife and I each worked at demanding and physically tiring jobs. Add to that two strong personalities and a marked difference in our ages, and we soon fell into heated and hurtful arguments. This happened almost exclusively on weekends, when we should have been enjoying each other's company. We were each left bewildered as to how this happened, since we were certain we loved each the other.
We were both avid readers, and at the time (the mid 1970's), I was reading 'The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner.' For those unfamiliar, this is a collection of stories by the English writer Alan Silitoe, who passed away in 2010. He won the Hawthornden Prize in 1959 for the title story, which is a great story, but it was another in the collection that affected me deeply. The story is called 'The Fishing Boat-Picture,' and is told from the point of view of the husband in a couple who marries young. After six years his wife becomes disenchanted and leaves him after a big argument. ("The trouble was when we had a row—and they were rows, swearing, hurling pots; the lot—it was too much like suffering, and in the middle of them it seemed to me as if we'd done nothing but row and suffer like this from the moment we set eyes on each other, ...and it would go on like this for as long as we stayed together. The truth was... that a lot of our time was bloody enjoyable.")
She immediately takes up with another man who dies seven years later, and then another with whom she lives a hard life. In between she periodically stops by the husband's place. Sometimes he gives her money. He also lets her have a picture of a fishing boat off the wall, which she promptly pawns. He discovers it and buys it back. He winds up giving it to her again later. In the end, she is run over and killed by a lorry while drunk, with the picture in her possession.
It's a tragic story about the wreck of a marriage and a life, and the thing is, the couple could have gotten back together at any time, if they'd made the effort. (It's not said that they were ever divorced.) I remember lying awake in bed pondering the last paragraph of the story. The husband is looking back on it all. "If you loved her ... (of course I bloody-well did)" he says to himself, "... then you both did the only thing possible if it was to be remembered as love. Now didn't you? ... Yes, I cry, but neither of us DID ANYTHING ABOUT IT, and that's the trouble."
I realized my marriage was headed for a similar fate if I didn't do something about it. Not as tragic an end maybe, but an end, nevertheless. There was nothing I could do about what my wife did or said, and anyway most of it was my fault; I was much younger and more self-willed. (And I can say now, in my sixty-plus years -- all the women I've met, with few exceptions, have had at least twice the character of any man, me included.) I promised myself I was going to do something about it. From then on, when an opportunity for disagreement arose, I would ask myself two questions. The first was, "Is this worth arguing about?" If the answer was "Yes," then the second question was, "Will what I am about to say hurt her?" If the answer to that was "Yes," I'd shut up. I didn't start out good at it, but I learned pretty quickly that it was an effective method for keeping peace, and got better at it.
Our marriage lasted thirty-five years, until I lost my wife in 2008. The last twenty-five, she never tired of telling people she was happy with me. This may have been more attributable to her amiableness than my efforts, but at least I must have done something right.
Would I have made the changes if I hadn't read the story? Maybe. But there's no doubt that because of the story, the changes were made sooner rather than later – or TOO late.
Causes Stephen Kata Supports