The Curse of Serendipity

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It takes a particular kind of bizarreness to be both an optimist and pessimistic about your own optimism, but my brand of oddity comes from being habitually over-analytical, so what can I say? I know I’m weird. But here’s my recent epiphany.

Thanksgiving weekend we flew down to Arizona to visit both sides of the family: Dave’s brother and his wife, and my parents. And amazingly, everything went so well. The dinner plans originally overlapped, but a late flight ended up pushing one Thanksgiving feast back so that Dave and I could be at both. Then I happened to get to the second half of my sister’s soccer game because it happened to be on the west side of town, we happened to miss a deadly dust storm on the interstate because some premonition told me not to leave when I’d planned to, both department heads I wanted to meet at ASU happened to be in their offices when I got there — stuff like that.

It was a serendipitous weekend, and it made me realize that my life often works like that, and that I’ve almost come to expect it to. Somehow, everything just seems to work out for the best.

It even happens with little things, like I’ll happen to hear about a certain novel and I’ll happen to read it and get ideas from it that are perfect for what I’m writing then, or I’ll happen to read an article or a blog or something that relates to a concept I need to teach in class.

Also while in Arizona, our boys happened to watch Aladdin. It’s one of the few Disney movies we don’t own, so I haven’t seen it in ages, and one scene in Aladdin made me realize the problem with my optimism:

Exciting stories require things to go wrong.

Everything is going swimmingly for Aladdin in the cave. They’ve met a magic carpet (by the way, how cool is the characterization when a carpet can be so expressive without a face or a voice?); Aladdin has spotted the lamp and is climbing up to grab it. And Abu ruins everything by touching the forbidden treasure.

Except if he hadn’t touched it, everything would be different — and possibly boring.

Touching the forbidden treasure makes for suspense and danger and a race to get out of the cave in time and tension when the scary tiger’s head opening collapses and traps them inside. Touching the forbidden treasure makes for a good story.

(Notice the Quote of the Moment from J. M. Barrie, too.)

As this dawned on me, I realized that no wonder I have such trouble creating suspense in my novel. I’m handicapped by an overly positive worldview!

In my life, things go right more often than they go wrong, and I’m unaccustomed to thinking in terms of how big a mess everything can fall into. No wonder my first draft of Wendy and the Lost Boys seemed so laissez-faire. I let a few things go wrong, but I didn’t interfere nearly enough. I need to be dropping anvils and pianos on my characters; instead my curse for serendipity continually suggests more pleasant alternatives.

Yet I remain optimistic that I can figure this out. (It’s that paradox again: optimistic pessimism!) I can tangle up my plot lines. I can throw some wrenches in there. I can amp up the danger level. It’s just going to take a lot of imagination, as opposed to drawing from life experience.

A dumb thing to complain about, I know — complaining that my life is too good. But I can fall back on my perspective for happy endings, at least!

What about you? What’s your worldview, and do you ever find it gumming up the works?

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