Monday, January 28, 2013

Image Nation

Lately, I have been reading Ursula K. Le Guin's wonderful book on reading and writing called The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on The Reader, The Writer and The Imagination. I read her book on writing (Steering the Craft), and have read The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness, but never her essays or talks, which are a bit more occasional than the instruction(s) in Steering the Craft.

She has a chapter on memoir in Wave entitled "Fact and/or/plus Fiction", and it addresses exactly something that comes up a lot in my discussions about memoirs with students. To whit: what is it ok to fabricate/exaggerate/change in memoir, and what needs to be 100% remembered?

In an interview in the back of her memoir Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch says that she's read neuroscience reports that the *more* we remember something (I call this leapfrogging - at age 10 my mom tells me about something that happened at age 5, and if I recall it now, it's be reinforced, instead of remembering from 35 about something from age 5) the less reliable it is.
Yes, you read me right.
Each time we recall it, that present moment leaves its mark/interpretation on that memory. Makes sense to me. So if it is possible to recall things whole cloth from way back, not already-remembered memories, technically they will be fresher/purer.

And yet. Really. Who recalls stuff, really recalls stuff, entire chapters of memoir stuff, from before their teen years? I know for certain that portions of my writing are amalgams - five or more memories compiled into one. Since memoir has come into its own as a separate category of creative nonfiction in the last couple of decades, the standards have changed - it's ok to combine, like a fiction writer would, or make a composite for privacy's sake (more on privacy versus secrecy here at my other blog, inside space). Le Guin isn't anti-privacy. But she finds these classifications a slippery slope - especially the italicized words "theatricalizing" and "conjuring" when she quotes two reviewers from a March 8, 1998 copy of the New York Times Book Review:
Remembering is an act of the imagination. Any account we make of our experience is an exercise in reinventing the self.  Even when we think we are accurately reporting past events, persons, objects, places and their sequence, we're theatricalizing the self and its world. - W.S. Di Piero
All autobiographers have a problem conjuring the truth. My own strategy is to regard writing about oneself as inadvertant fiction. - Paul Levy
Later, not in direct response to these quotes, but in dealing with them the way I want to discuss them, and her writing, here, Le Guin says:
If this nondistinction of the fictive and the factual is a general trend, maybe we should celebrate it as a victory of creativity over unimaginative, indiscriminate factualism.  I worry about it, however, because it seems to me that by not distinguishing invention from lying, it puts imagination itself at risk.
And, in particular:
Excellence in nonfiction lies in the writer's skills in observing, organising, narrating, and interpreting facts --skills entirely dependent on imagination, used not to invent, but to connect and illuminate observation. Writers of nonfictional narrative who "create" facts, introduce inventions, for the sake of aesthetic convenience (etc) aren't using the imagination, but betraying it.
What is this imagination she then speaks of, if not "making things up"?
I think that Lynda Barry's discussion of "image" relates to this strongly.

Lynda Barry, in her books What It Is and Picture This, refers back to an early teacher she had at Evergreen College who discussed the use of image. A wonderful NYT article here gets more into how she teaches and what she teaches. In brief, from that article:
“Kids don’t plan to play,” she told her class in the first day. “They don’t go: ‘Barbie, Ken, you ready to play? It’s gonna be a three-act.’ ” Narrative, Barry believes, is so hard-wired into human beings that creativity can come as naturally to adults as it does to children. They need only to access the deep part of the brain that controls that storytelling instinct. Barry calls that state of mind “the image world” and feels it’s as central to a person’s well-being as the immune system.
Most of the writing that comes about in Barry's workshops is, though, not fiction - it is non-fiction. Memoir. She uses repeating devices to cull the deep memory places, and says that even things we make up come from our own experiences - inherently. If it wasn't our experience at some point, then how did it get in there? This well, this store house is the image world, or for me, the image nation: where imagination is sourced, deep in our image banks. Lynda Barry from an interview on The Sound of Young America:
I think there’s something about the motion of the hand and our beautiful opposable thumbs that is really connected to whatever this art world is, whatever the image world is. All I have to do is get my hands in motion and have a shorter amount of time to work than I think I need.
I am not saying that Le Guin would truck with this (temporary - this is an ongoing exploration) conclusion, but I find that so long as experience/writing comes out of that place, that Image Nation, then it is likely to carry more truth, and Truth, than something we would call "imaginative" ("creating facts," above). Richer. More real to human life, and often, more beautiful - even if it appears in fiction, but especially with the responsibilities of Memoir as a genre.

The whole chapter goes deeply into the question of truth/fiction, fiction/nonfiction. It's a wonderful, nay, essential read. But every time she mentioned this word "imagination", Barry's Image World kept popping up in my own mind. How could these two NOT be related? Everything arises out of our sense perceptions, say Dharma teachings - or how we experience it, our connections do, anyway. If they get stored as images, rather than biases - stored as direct experiences, and we write in a way that accesses these images, rather than stories already fully told or bent in the mind, then we have an endless resource of imagination - the real imagination - awaiting us inside our minds, regardless of how much we "remember" or "make up."

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