That Watershed Moment
We all have them in our lives, the moment when something changes. The moment when the catalyst appears and is activated. The moment when everything shifts. Sometimes we are aware, at the time, that this is a moment on which life will pivot and twist and turn, but more often, we are not. More often, it would seem, we are unaware of the most powerful moments of change in our lives, precipitating a cascade of events which results in often radical re-visioning of self and life. This seems to be the key to a good story as well, the moment of change, but more often than not, the stories I write involve a ‘large’ change, something catastrophic or so significant that change is inevitable. But what about those subtle, quiet moments of change, not noticed at the time. We all know the device: “Little did she know . . .” but how often is that actually true, when, in the absence of the omniscient narrator, something happens which changes our life course forever without us knowing that it is one of those moments?
I can admit that I am somewhat preoccupied, even obsessed, with the concept of the Watershed moment. It seems to feature in all the stories I want to tell. It is that life event so significant that you cannot help but be change by it. All that matters then is how the characters in the story, the people whose lives are being changed, find themselves responding. This is the essence of good storytelling, is it not? The essence of plot?
Someone once told me that life is not a story, but I beg to differ. What else do we base our stories on but the real occurrences in life? Yes, we may shift the focus, emphasise some things more than other, to tell a good story, but essentially, we are only reframing what all people understand to be common experiences in life, expressed in fiction. How else would we find a connection with story, if it was too far removed from reality? Even in the most obscure fantasy, people retain certain connections with what we understand such as language, narrative shape, action, reaction, response, and personality.
And what else gives us the essence of story but the watershed moment? But how easily can we identify watershed moments? Are they always as distinctive and singular as we expect them to be?
Follow me, if you will, along this story path for a while . . .
A woman, let’s call her Jane, is married to John. Jane and John have a few issues, most of which is related to John’s behaviour in their marriage. He is possessive, jealous, and controlling. Jane hasn’t fully realised how controlling, but has become aware of her life shrinking, her friends drifting away, her activities diminishing until she is either at work or at home with John and has little life outside these two spheres. Her life has shrunk, but this is marriage, and as she moves more and more into the traditional role of wife, she tells herself that this is what she signed up for. She is a busy professional with a good job, but still she plays the role of wife at home.
Jane’s life revolves around John’s family and John’s friends, but she tells herself this is good, as she doesn’t have much family of her own, and few friends locally. Still, sometimes she feels lonely, or isolated, cut off from the people she used to spend time with. But John is the love of her life, and there is such a deep bond between them that she believes him when he says they should everything to each other.
Then she is asked to attend a work-based staff-development event on the other side of the country. It is a great honour to be asked to go to this event, and Jane is to be accompanied by her female boss for the trip which will last four days. She informs John, and John seems happy enough that she is going.
Jane attends the event, and is inspired, empowered and enriched by the experience, returning home full of energy and motivation. She is full of ideas for her job, new projects, and delighted by the experience. A few days later, she finds out her work at the weekend was nominated for an award within her company. So excited by this, she posts on her Twitter account that she has been nominated for an award. When she returns home that night, John accuses her of having an affair at the work event, because she didn’t tell him about the nomination before posting it online, which tells him that she no longer loves him enough. John becomes angry, withdrawn and distant, accusing Jane of betraying their marriage. Confused, Jane tries to cope with this false accusation and rejection, and is very unhappy, until one day, a friend reminds her that she has done nothing wrong. Seeing John’s behaviour starts the process of self-examination and self-awareness that results in Jane reclaiming her self-esteem. Eventually, that reclaiming leads to her standing up to John time and time again, and finally, after many, many months, brings about the end of their marriage. John is unhappy with a wife that won’t be bidden, Jane is unassailable in her self-belief. John rejects her, and tells her their marriage is over, and although she is heartbroken, Jane has spoken her truth throughout the experience, and although she loses everything (her home, his extended family, their shared friends) finds herself much happier alone.
And finally, after going to hell and back, content in herself and her new life, Jane finds out that she actually won that award. She is amazed, because she can see now the whole journey from the day of the nomination to the point of winning, and realises how much her life has changed. This is the full circle of the story arc, taking us to the point where we see Jane stepping off into a new future.
So what is the watershed moment in this story? Is it the work event that made Jane feel so good about herself? Is it John’s reaction to her? Or is it the moment that she forgets to put John first and foremost in her mind, and posts her good news online without fear? At what point does this character demonstrate the shift between one state and another? Is the change inherent in Jane from the moment she returns home from that work event? Is the nomination for an award the watershed moment? Is it the action of the friend, who takes on the role of the good fairy, and shows her that she has done nothing wrong? Or is it a combination of all of these factors? What is clear is that this event could have been any event, at any time, that triggered the particular set of responses in these particular characters.
I think this story speaks to the complexity, the messiness of human experiences which belies the simplicity with which we often frame narratives around singular, life-changing events. In essence, the story must be about more than simply the one event, because everything tied up in and around that event is also part of the watershed time. And it is about more than the actual event, it is about how the different people involved react to the event. This is the essence of a good story, I believe, the complexities of character in action and reaction. The narrative arc moves beyond simple cause and effect, but cause and consequence are present. It is not neat and tidy, yet it is satisfying, with a positive conclusion. And I also believe that as human beings, we frame real life events in a similar way, recognising the progress from watershed moment to some kind of satisfying conclusion, even if we only do this in retrospect. Our lives are our stories, we live them and we retell them. Perhaps it is the very nature of life to be full of watershed moments such as this, if only we have the wit to recognise them. Just like our characters, all that matters is how we respond.