Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who tells your story
~Lin Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
I went to a wake last week for “the older Mr. A.” He had been a friend of my grandparents—and, for me, the last member of that famous World War II generation. The last one I’d grown up knowing.
Despite his long presence in my life, I didn’t know Mr. A. well. He was a good guy—I understood that much. The solid, quiet type. So quiet that I only remember speaking with him at length once: we argued about Mike Piazza’s merits as a defensive catcher.
So I listened to the stories his family told about him with interest. I already knew about his life long devotion to the New York Yankees. (I don’t think that colored his opinion on Mike Piazza too much, though.) But I didn’t know that when he was a child, he moved—via horse and wagon—into his first home with electric lights. That one threw me! But he was 95, almost 96. So he must have been born around 1921. Apparently not every U.S. home had electricity back then. Which, of course, makes sense.
I sat there thinking about how much he experienced in his lifetime: the wars, the technological advances, the changing styles of books and newspapers; the coming and going of diseases. And how he can never tell us about any of those again. From here on out, his children and grandchildren will tell his story, and the stories he liked to tell.
It’s like that. We have a certain amount of time to tell our own stories—to try define our personal story. And then that time is over. It will be up to others to define us, to remember us or to forget us.
I wonder if writers are especially aware of this? If the urge to write is in part the urge to leave behind stories that will survive us? But even if we’re lucky enough to write stories that powerful, I don’t think they’ll survive the way we expect them to. They’ll change as readers change. New eyes will bring new interpretations, new views of the characters and new ways of seeing the world. The stories won’t be ours to control any longer.
And maybe that’s okay. After all, sometimes our current readers find things we didn’t know were there! Some penetrating insight into our characters, some fresh take on our theme. So we’re never fully in control anyway. Maybe that makes it easier to deal with the fact that, someday, we’ll relinquish that control altogether.