Nonfic: Writing in the present vs. writing about the past (or, Edward Abbey’s narrative b.s.)

I’ve written journals for over two decades now. The older writing is interesting to read because it comes from another time, from essentially another version of me. These older writings sometimes have a voice I recognize as my own, but because I no longer remember writing them, they don’t feel like mine.  These older writings have an authenticity of belonging to, of being from, a distant present, but they are not present now — for me to sit down this present (that is, now) and write about events of years ago would simply be an exercise in memory (and from comparing my memories of long-ago events to my writings from those distant times, I am aware of the overgeneralized, and even incorrect, nature of my memories).

But it seems important to make the distinction between writings-then and writings-now, perhaps because to write in the present about the present (or very recent past — say, hours or days) is to not fully understand what’s going on, where things are headed, what things mean.  To write in the present is to write tentatively, partially — but also honestly. Writing in the present matches how we live, moment by moment, doing what we can with our limited understanding.

But to write in the present about the distant past is simply to tell the narratives that comprise one’s memories, and those narrative memories are not only of doubtful accuracy, they’re also complete bullsh!t — or they might as well be.  There is no necessary reality to any of these stories. Any meanings we find in our experiences are interpretive, subjective, arbitrary, and, of course, likely to change over time (we may interpret for years an event that lasted brief minutes). Not that there’s no value to these meanings — they can be insightful (for the writers and for the readers) and these can be entertaining (witness the popularity of texts claiming to be nonfiction).  When my high school students write personal narratives, I suggest to them that they could find and tell many different “lessons learned” from a single experience, and all of these could be valid, as far as the personal narrative genre is concerned.

But entertaining as these written-from-memory texts may be, they don’t describe how most people, even including writers, actually live. It took me a long time, years, to realize this: that writers live life moment-by-moment, as anybody does, and if they are narrating their life story, or thinking of their experience as mythic as they are experiencing it, well, that’s probably not a healthy way to live.

An example of this tension between writing-in-the-present and writing-about-the-past  is in writer Edward Abbey’s book “Desert Solitaire,” about his experiences working at Arches National Monument, Utah, which account is written ten years after the events, as he tells us in the first page of his introduction. However, few pages later, as he starts the narrative of the book, he tells it as if it’s happening in the present. The text discusses a choice he made that “became apparent to me this morning when I stepped out of a Park Service housetrailer … to watch for the first time in my life the sun come up over the hoodoo stone of Arches National Monument” (on page 2).

It’s possible that he wrote a line very similar to that in his journal that very first morning. But there’s nothing about the text to indicate that these were his exact first thoughts from a journal written 10 years earlier. This quote above fits smoothly into a passage that discusses an abstract generality, that of feeling like he’s found his home.  Again, it’s possible that he did have that exact thought on that first morning. On the other hand, it seems quite likely that he had many more practical thoughts on that first day — or that even if he had an abstract thought about finding his spiritual home, he then went on to have many other thoughts about practical matters, here-and-now concerns — that is, he lived in the present, where all of us really do live.

So Abbey is telling a story, is spinning a polished, edited yarn, but he’s also claiming, with that subtle sleight of hand, to be telling this in the present, as if that’s actually how it happened. He’s a good writer, and it’s an entertaining story he tells, and this entertaining story makes him seem like a swell guy, an intriguing character even, but the trade-off is that it’s no longer plausible. His text loses the flavor of being fresh. It’s like processed food: edible, consistent, a satisfactory product, but it’s not fresh food that can be uneven, yes, but can also be astoundingly, surprisingly good.

And there’s a big market for satisfactory product.  And I say that a tad bitterly, but I’m not sure I mean it that way.  I have, many times, enjoyed reading the polished prose of a nonfiction storyteller. It’s easy to read, it makes a point and gets done, etc.  Yet, I don’t seem to be interested in writing those things. What I most love to write is the fresh stuff, the ideas currently in my head. Writing about my past seems tedious. Writing my memories would feel like an assignment.

For years, I have felt I ought to figure out some way to turn my journals into published work,  following the lead of another revered nonfiction writer, H.D. Thoreau, in “Walden.” Turning my journals into smooth, polished, familiar-form writing would help draw readers to my journal-writing; I doubt I would have read Thoreau’s journal had he not built his reputation on “Walden.” But with my own writing, I had real trouble getting beyond that past/present divide. I didn’t want to retell past stories in the present, and somehow, simply quoting from (or editing together) prior journals seemed tedious, seemed not to be writing that felt alive. And lately I have thought, what’s so great about Thoreau’s “Walden,” anyway? It sold poorly and, I seem to recall, Thoreau’s reputation benefitted from the praise of Emerson and Hawthorne. Not to condemn “Walden,” but I figure there has to be other ways to relate journal-writing and published-writing.

Yet, some of Thoreau’s journal entries that I’ve read seem alive, seem intimate, seem more real than anything in “Walden.”  It’s the difference between being an audience member at a storytelling show (where you may be entertained but aren’t really likely to be surprised: at a performance, the audience expects to hear some variations on a story told fundamentally within the familiar story structures, forms, and if a performer goes too far afield, he/she risks losing the audience) and simply talking to a person in an informal setting — you’re less likely to be told a story, and certainly not a full-production version of the story, but what you’ll get will be authentically the real-life person.

And, of course, this distinction, too, is just a story, an idea — arbitrary, discardable. Even my definition of “real” is, of course, debatable, as are all ideas. And I don’t read others’ (or even my own) journals exhaustively or exclusively.  But there is something I love about the outside-of-expected-form nature of journals, with their preserved present moments.

2 responses to “Nonfic: Writing in the present vs. writing about the past (or, Edward Abbey’s narrative b.s.)

  1. I have the same experience, reading my journals is like reading about somehone else, someone rather tedious at times, so full of angst, so in her head, not in the moment. I’m thinking strongly about destroying them all before I die, so my poor kids don’t think they are obligated to reading them, like they will “find” me there. I’m not that person anymore. Thank god.

    Journaling may be like writing drafts of our life, we’re still drafting ourselves, trying out ideas, trying on experiences, trying to figure out who we are, what life is all about. So I like looking back now and writing about my life with the perspective of time to help me see what was true and what wasn’t. What experiences really changed me, broadened me, deepened me–what led to who I am now, and discard all that was just dress rehearsal, trying on different outfits, experiences that went nowhere, and led to nothing. I know now some things really mattered, and stuck, stayed with me, and a lot never did, so I let it go.

    Life is like a distillation–the experience of it overwhelms us and can lead us all over the place,. What matters, what’s real, is what we distill, the essence of things. I like this Taoist saying: ” We create ourselves out of our innermost intuitions.” It’s like that.

    Thanks for getting me thinking about all this!

    • And thanks for your considered comments. I agree that, for me, jounaling does help me let go of worries and complaints, things that don’t matter. I also like your point about distilling experience, learning from it. And yet, what struck me as I read your comments is that we (or just I?) live life by distilling it — that I don’t think I may ever get to an endpoint where I’ve got everything figured out. That, as wise as I may one day become, every day is a new day of particular situations. For me, thinking about life is how I live my life.

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