Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sirens and the Seduction of the Past

from Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind
There is.. a rather bittersweet exchange of a comfortable and settled present existence for a troubled but intensely lived past.
There are still occasional sirens to this past, and there remains a seductive, if increasingly rare, desire to recreate the furor and fever of earlier times. I look back over my shoulder and feel the presence of an intense young girl and then a volatile and disturbed young woman, both with high dreams and restless, romantic aspirations.
There is, for me, a mixture of longings for an earlier age; this is inevitable, perhaps, in any life, but there is an extra twist of almost painful nostalgia brought about by having lived a life particularly intense in moods. Life, on occasion, becomes an elegy for lost moods. I miss the lost intensities, and I find myself unconsciously reaching out for them, as I still now and again reach back with my hand for the fall and heaviness of my now-gone, long, thick hair; like the trace of moods, only a phantom weight remains. These current longings are, for the most part, only longings, and I do not feel compelled to re-create the intensities: the consequences are too awful, too final, and too damaging.
Still, the seductiveness of these unbridled and intense moods is powerful; and the ancient dialogue between reason and the senses is almost always more interestingly and passionately resolved in favor of the senses. 

I am well familiar with the collusion of past and present. Being someone who has always kept journals, wondered about what came before and curious about what is to come, reflective and contemplative, and occasionally also obsessive, I know there's a risk inherent to looking back.
Thinking back over something is one thing - writing about it to try and understand it is something else all together. The process of digesting our past is not easy, and something that is different in memoir than it is in therapy.

We can build a solid idea of our past, something that is one dimensional (a drawing) or even three dimensional but also without change, without re-interpretation - a monument, a sculpture. This is not what the past is, nor is it what memoir is. Good memoir, like memory, like life and like writing, is slippery and calls to us because its hauntingly unresolvable. As poet Olga Broumas taught me when I was in residency at Vermont Studio Center over ten years ago, there is no one poem, no one book, certainly not a sentence or even an entire body of work that will capture our story - no matter if it is based in memory, imagination or experience.

And writing about the past - especially when it contains addiction or seductive states - can shift our allegiance to the past from the present, and towards wanting to make it sound better than it was. On the one hand, since we survived and have some distance, we know it works out, and so it is better than it was. On the other hand, now we can really feel it - both how powerful/positive it could be, and also how damaging/negative it was.

If it weren't so intense, we wouldn't be writing about it.
Most people don't. I frequently have to remind my students that most people aren't writing memoir. Most people aren't writing at all.
Writing is scary and hard.
Memoir is extra vulnerable - not just revealing ourselves to others but to ourselves.

So long as we stay rooted in the present, and what we have learned from now - ideally through our body, and in conversation with this former self, as Joan Didion has said - we can really explore and be open to new understandings. That way the past can serve the present, instead of pulling us out of it.

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