Time, memory, kids, and writing

I haven’t posted much lately. I’ve been waiting to feel really excited to blog, to have what I think of as “authentic energy” to create, so I’m not forcing myself to write, which tends not to lead to interesting prose. I haven’t yet felt excited to write. But I keep telling myself that I should be writing, so I’m blogging today just to break through the “shoulds” and the self-pressure. I don’t feel I have anything particularly compelling to say. But that’s OK, too. I’m skeptical of my motives when I do feel compelled to say something: maybe I’m just trying to convince others to think as I do, or maybe I want to really criticize somebody else’s idea (and it’s always easier to criticize someone else’s ideas than to figure out my own), or maybe I am non-humbly thinking that what I have to say will Change Your Life.


Maybe writing-silence is OK. I’ve been writing my daily journals, but just not on this blog so much. It’s quite possible that I’m just too tired to be creative. Most summers, I am ready to write after a month of summer vacation. Not this year, though.

I could be satisfied with silence, but somehow, I’m not. I feel some self-directed pressure to post (along the lines of, “How can you not be working — this is your best time of year to work!”) … and blerg. I was on vacation last week — out of my normal routine — and so I wasn’t telling myself that I should be writing, and that lack of self-pressure was itself a vacation.

One idea on my mind lately has been why I prefer reading and writing nonfiction to fiction. I recently tried to explain this to a friend, but I couldn’t explain this well even to myself. But later, after looking at some videos I took of his young children’s antics, I had an idea why: Why should I pay attention to fictional worlds and characters when real people and places are so fascinating? And also fascinating are the ways we talk about, write about, photograph, and document real life — what I was wanting to video, what I thought about as I took video, what I thought about as I watched the videos days later (when I still remembered contexts), what I will think about as I watch these videos years from now, and how my friend’s kids may watch these videos years from now, when they will most likely not even remember themselves being the ages they are in the videos.

My friend’s kids surely are forming memories, even if they are not yet forming memories of themselves as the center of their own experiences, which experiences often (for me, anyway) take the form of a story. The oldest memories I now have seem to be from when I was about 4, or a little before, maybe. (When I say “oldest memories,” I mean that, when I think of watching my dad ride a bike away from home on the day my youngest brother was born, I must have been about age 4 when having the experience, because my brother is 4 years younger than I am. The memory itself, of course, is fragmentary but seems almost as clear and as fresh in mind as memories of experiences from a couple weeks ago.)

These youngsters, ages 1 and 2.5, also seem to have a different time sense from most adults, in that the kids seem very much involved in the present moment — they get fully absorbed in playing, or in eating, or in expressing discomfort, etc. The kids are unconsciously living “in the now” in the way adults have to more consciously follow the advice to “be present.” On the other hand, the kids’ present moments often involve urgently felt needs and demands, so it’s not exactly patient or mindful.

It feels banal to talk about time passing, to look back, to look forward — it’s all too boring to talk about how things used to be, and it’s pure fiction to think about how things could one day be. But, of course, what else is as confounding, as ever-present (it’s hard to avoid awkward language usage when writing about time), as having memories that contrast with what I’m presently seeing and what I’ll expect to see.

Perhaps my desire to be aware of, and keep my attention on, the present moment is part of why I am not drawn to fiction, which often asks readers to pull their attention out of the present reality and place it in the pure abstraction of story. I talked today to someone who enjoys reading novels, and he said he prefers the 700- or 800-page versions to shorter ones. I think that this person is someone who wants to get fully immersed in a story, caught up in a fictional world, a world of ideas. I suspect that, for readers like this, getting absorbed into a narrative is a way of letting go of their own realities for a while.

I don’t mean to say this is somehow ethically or socially wrong. But it’s personally wrong for me. When I got absorbed into the fiction I read, back in high school and college, I used to want to have my own life experiences be as deeply felt and as meaningful as those experiences I was reading about. I wished that I had a journey as exciting as Bilbo’s in “The Hobbit,” or that my adventures with friends were as exciting as Kerouac’s in “On The Road.” But at some point, I started to realize that the fictions I was reading were always unreal, were idealized — even realistic fiction is edited to be more intense than real life. Rather than spend time in an unreal narrative, I began wanting to see what real life is and how it can be interesting even without being structured by plots of murder and intrigue, etc.

It’s ridiculous, of course, to dismiss a whole category of art as big as fiction. I wince a little inside when someone tells me that he or she just is not interested in the poetry genre I enjoy. I think, You don’t know what you’re missing! Sure, a lot of poetry isn’t interesting, but some is really great! And I know fiction-lovers could say the same to me.

But I think I like poetry more than fiction now because poetry — because some poems — can surprise me more than fiction can. I feel so many fictions, whether short stories or novels or TV shows or movies, are just too familiar. I wanna be surprised. (I do still like comedy shows, because, I think, of the surprises of the jokes — jokes that aren’t surprising aren’t jokes). I wanna be shown something that has a unique form, something that tries something new.

My friend’s daughter, who’s two and a half years old, watches kids’ TV stories, hears books read to hear, hears her parents make up stories using her toys, and she even tells her own stories unprompted. Having never spent a lot of time with children her age, I was interested to see how much she is taking in stories and absorbing their structure. It probably is valuable, for anyone living within our contemporary culture, to be familiar with narrative, to be able to interpret narratives; even as someone who’s skeptical of fiction, I wouldn’t advise kids not to absorb and enjoy stories.

Presumably there are developmental markers for when kids learn stories, and for when they learn to question stories. And presumably I was told stories as a kid, stories whose structures I began absorbing before I even could form memories. My own childhood is lost to me, is itself an abstraction. Even the past I remember is inadequate. I wake up to find myself (in whatever condition I find myself) in each moment.

3 responses to “Time, memory, kids, and writing

  1. Marshall Dwyer

    Interesting stuff, as usual! I have to play devil’s advocate here — or rather fiction’s advocate (which maybe, to your mind, IS the devil): I feel like you’re basing your judgment of fiction on limited samplings. That is to say, on predictable, well-structured stuff.

    This is probably what a lot of people who don’t like poetry do to that form. They get Emily Dickenson and memorize “O Captain, My Captain!” and think “How is this relevant to my life, with it’s antiquated language?” It’s obviously unfair to read Shakespeare’s Sonnets in school and discount the whole art form as out of touch.

    I love fiction deeply, and yet also find most of it too predictable. I’m always on the search for stuff that isn’t this obvious — probably like you are in poetry.

    So I guess I’m challenging you: read some more experimental fiction before writing off the whole art, if what you find is obvious and repetitive and that bores you…

    (Always love the blog!)

  2. Marshall Dwyer

    Wait, one more thing: not to say you can’t value fiction less than nonfiction, because of course, this is what makes the world go round.

    But what I’m responding to is a more objective sense in your posting that fiction is LESS valuable, or somehow destructive or dangerous to a Zen approach to living or mindfulness.

    Oh contrare! For me, the best fiction holds a mirror up to reality in a way that helps me see it from other perspectives.

    I guess I’m saying ys, there certainly is escapist fiction, but there is also fiction that works to be a crystalization of reality.

    I certainly don’t see it has having less value than nonfiction. For me, language has such a slushy connection to reality — despite its role in even shaping our reality during development — that I don’t see nonfiction as maybe getting to the real truths you speak to in a superior fashion (just more literally, maybe — or in the worst cases, more superficially)…

  3. Thanks for reading the post and thanks for making the argument for fiction. I agree that language has “a slushy connection to reality” (and I like the image in that phrase). I agree that reading certain fictions, particularly the more-experimental fictions, can have some wonderful moments that can provoke thoughts as much as reading nonfiction does. Both forms are very similar, of course (in the sense that only two words separate the fictional statement “A madman killed me yesterday” from the nonfictional statement “A madman could have killed me yesterday”). When I say that I’m more interested in nonfic than fiction, I don’t mean that, say, a New Yorker profile is necessarily more interesting than a New Yorker fiction. And of course, the theme of a work based on lies is itself a nonfictional statement (Gatsby isn’t a real person, but any point Fitz. wanted to make about wealth/identity, etc., is itself nonfic. I wonder what a fictional story’s fictional theme would look like? Or maybe one could say that a reader accepts the reality of fictional texts — “suspension of disbelief” — in order to treat the text as real-enough to be worth reading? You yourself said you read fic. to have the real experience of the “crystalization of reality.’)
    What I would say is that, for me, I’m more interested right now in looking at and thinking about and writing about the real world and my real experiences (in present time, not as distant memoir) than I am in delving/diving into text for the sake of text. But maybe this distinction isn’t all that useful?

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