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Persistence

Yesterday a relative pointed out to me some troubles with yesterday’s post. She said, first off, that I painted my mom to be more naïve than she was. After all, she said, her first husband–before my father–had slept around and run off on her. Second, I had the facts of the divorce decree simply wrong. Our father could take us out of the county but not out of the state, that this is a standard clause in custody arrangements. I maintained that I was right because I remembered. My relative pointed out that she, unlike me, had actually read my parents’ divorce decree.

To the first point: One of the things I don’t like about blogging is the demand for conciseness. Though I could in theory write a 5,000-word blog post, I don’t have the time to write it, and no-one wants to take that long to read a blog post. And so I compress, and avoid explaining some of the nuance. My mother, like every human being on the planet, is a complex person.

As to the second point, I relied mostly on a memory I had when I was ten. My father was going to take us to an amusement park near the Kentucky border. My mother said that he couldn’t because he was violating the divorce decree. The police got involved and everything. (In the end, our father took us, but it wasn’t a fun trip. He sat at the entrance and just told us to run off and do whatever. He wouldn’t give us any money whatsoever for concessions, and they charged five cents for water, and so we ran around on a hot day with no fluids.)

And so I tried to remember why there was the big brouhaha, and I thought it had to do with taking us out of the county. But now I have to admit that my memory was wrong here somehow. The trouble could have been that my father never told my mother directly that he was going to take us on the trip, having my brother tell her instead. It could be that, at the time, my mother misunderstood the divorce decree. Or it could have been something else that I can’t think of right now.

All of this calls to mind two important issues. First, autobiography is not memoir. In an autobiography, the author is reporting history. She collects facts and does research, even though she’s writing about her own life. An autobiography focuses on facts. In memoir, the author relies on her memory and the memory of those around her to inform the writing. And a memoirist is not merely reporting history, but is telling a story. She is using plot devices and story structures and all the other elements we use to tell a good story. But real life is not a “good story”. In real life, things don’t have a beginning, middle, and end–life just flows on. But stories demand a beginning, middle, and end, and so the memoirist frames her life to conform to the conventions of storytelling. Similarly, human beings are ridiculously complex, but for the sake of telling a story, especially a shorter story, the writer doesn’t dive into the 37 reasons why a character does what he does.

I am not an autobiographer, I am a memoirist. That distinction is crucial to understanding what I write. I have no intention to get facts wrong or to misrepresent anyone or anything. But I do try to tell a good story. And if I do get something wrong, as I did yesterday, I want to be called out on it so I can get the facts straight. I have learnt that it is better to be wrong and speak up than to be wrong and remain silent. If I speak up, then my wrongness can be pointed out, and I can change my mind and be right, whereas if I remain silent, I stay wrong.

Image from realitybitesartblog.blogspot.com

“The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí

And then there is the niggling issue of the reliability of memory. Science keeps showing us it’s not particularly reliable. The human brain is constantly restructuring itself and putting the pieces together the best it can, albeit imperfectly. We only have the illusion that our memory persists, when in fact our memory warps and melts and drips.

Is this a terrible thing? I’m of the same mind as a former professor of mine, Leah Savion of Indiana University (probably the best teacher I’ve ever had). She has an idea (which I really wish would get some notice in the academic community) that she calls “naive logic”. It’s the premise that, despite all the demonstrable failings of the human mind–its inconsistencies, its inability to grasp even basic logic, and yes, its faulty memory–it has nonetheless served humanity well for several hundred thousand years and is responsible for getting us to evolve to the point we are at. Therefore, despite our brains’ deficiencies, they serve us well nonetheless and therefore ought not to be dismissed when we delve into a deeper understanding of philosophy.

Now, the implications for this idea are profound in many areas of philosophy and cognitive science, and I won’t bother to dive into those here (because, again, none of us wants a 5,000-word blog post). Suffice it to say that I think I, and all of us, are usually doing the best we can with that wad of grey stuff between our ears. It’s part of why I try to treat people with trust and grace, even when others might consider doing so unwarranted. I believe that to live otherwise would be pretty much impossible. We would always be paralyzed, doubting every little fact of the universe.

So keep doing the best you can. I will.

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Overthinking

Cripes!  Have I really gone three weeks plus without posting here?  It didn’t seem like that long.  I need to get much more in the habit of posting here.  To be honest, I don’t really want to, but it’s the 21st century, and people expect writers to maintain a blog, so here I am.

One positive development is that I finally have home internet established, which has made my life worlds easier.

Now, onto what seems the only subject I ever write about here–what I am going to write about.  And one thing I’ve learnt in life is that no-one gives a damn about what you’re going to do, only what you’re doing.

But I realise that I’ve been overthinking this whole process.  I’ve been wanting to write big, grandiose things.  And I realise that I can convey big, grandiose ideas without writing big, grandiose things.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that our personal stories shape our values and beliefs.  And I am chock-full of little memoirs that have shaped my life and my thinking.  So I think I will dig deep into my life and pull up those little snatches of stories, archetypal events that, while seemingly unimportant at the time, typified my life experience, and in this way shaped my thinking.

One more thing: I’m taking a break from Facebook for a while.  It’s not good for my mental health, particularly in an election year.  Which means I haven’t the foggiest idea how I’m going to publicise new entries, or anything else going on in my life, for that matter.  Like many creative types who depend heavily on their ability to market themselves, I have no ability whatsoever to market myself.  So I toss this blog to the wind and just hope someone catches it.

Detours

So, I do not have the promised essay.  I already said that it was proving unwieldy.  I’m also finding that my writing process is not conducive to a steady blogging habit (never mind that I do not have home internet access.)  If I want to post something more than an update, and I want to revise it a few times over to be good enough before I make it available for human consumption, my practise is not amenable to the internet.  Of course, one of the great problems with internet culture is that we value speed over accuracy, clarity, or excellence.

I am also discovering other, more disturbing things about my writing.  By which I mean that I am finding I really enjoy writing poetry.  I call it “disturbing” half-jokingly.  Before the summer began, I vowed to never write poetry except under duress (or a professor’s assignment, which can be kind of the same thing.)  But I got  a hold of a good instructor who overturned the reasons that I didn’t like poetry: that much contemporary was sloppy and vague, where I value rigour, clarity, and accuracy.  My misconceptions I blame on high school, the last time I had formal instruction in poetry.  But I realise now that a) a high-school teacher is often forced to make compromises in order to make poetry palatable to students who Will Not Like It; b) there is only so much a teacher can teach when confined to teaching a single “unit” on poetry; and c) the average high-schooler is not ready for the more intricate nuances of contemporary poetry.

There is of course a more serious reason why I’m concerned that I am finding my greatest writing faculty to be in poetry.  As someone who considers his message more important than the messenger, I worry that I will be expressing that message in the medium that receives the least care or attention in our culture, not to mention the fact that I somehow have to feed myself.

But what can I do?  I soldier on.  I keep cranking out poetry.  And I focus on this semester–I am only a writing undergraduate.  I will be taking a class this semester called “1000 Words or Less” for the express purpose of helping me to become a better online writer.  The aforementioned essay series will be published here, but on my terms and in my time.  It’s the only way I can do a blog.

Forward

The reality for writers these days is to maintain a public blog.  This runs a bit counter to how I work, but I’m finding it necessary nonetheless.  So, then, I need to take this blog phenomenon and make it fit how I work.  There are two big things I’ve realised about my writing process lately:

1) I do most of my writing not related to school on weekends

2) I tend to think in fives.  I spent most of my growing up with five people in my family (my mother, my two brothers, my sister, and me.)  I favour a five-act structure over a three-act in writing.  I tend to break up my poems in five sections.
So, you can see that the way I work fits blogging well, if I write five days’ worth of material over the weekend.  And what I want to do is write series, five interrelated essays at a time.

I won’t guarantee I will write every week, at least at first.  It will be more reasonable to aspire to once I can get home internet access.  (I’m having unusual issues getting this set up.)  But I already know the first few series I want to write, some of them having sat in my head a long time and must finally come out.  The material will be social commentary and memoir, as most of what I write otherwise is poetry and fiction.
So, there.  This will not and cannot sit idle anymore.